House Passes 'Cheeseburger Bill'

The House of Representatives on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved legislation that would put obesity lawsuits against fast-food companies on a starvation diet.

The "Cheeseburger Bill" — officially called the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act (search) — faces obstacles in the Senate. If it becomes law, it would prevent what it describes as "frivolous lawsuits against the manufacturers, distributors or sellers of food or nonalcoholic beverage products" arising from obesity claims.

Those who overeat should blame themselves, not the fast food industry that employs almost 12 million people and is the nation's second largest employer behind the government, Republicans said.

"We as Americans need to realize that suing your way to better health is not the answer," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. "Trial lawyers need to stop encouraging consumers to blame others for the consequences of their actions just so they can profit from frivolous lawsuits against restaurants."

The measure basically says it's the consumer's problem if his greasy-eating habit adds to his bulk and would protect companies like KFC and Wendy's from fat-related lawsuits. But it wouldn't prevent civil suits stemming from tainted foods or mislabeling.

Coming up for a vote a day after health officials announced that obesity was on the verge of surpassing tobacco as the leading preventable cause of death in the United States, the bill easily passed the House 276 to 139.

However, the Senate has often blocked House-passed measures that would cap legal damages or protect certain industries from lawsuits. The Senate bill is sponsored by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

"I recognize that obesity is a serious problem in America, but suing the people who produce and sell food is not going to solve this problem," he said. "Americans need to take greater care in what - and how much - they eat."

At a news conference before the vote Wednesday, bill sponsor Rep. Ric Keller (search), R-Fla., said the bill is about "common sense and personal responsibility."

The White House issued a statement backing Keller's bill, saying, "food manufacturers and sellers should not be held liable for injury because of a person's consumption of legal, unadulterated food and a person's weight gain or obesity."

But Democrats called the bill a Republican political ploy aimed at hurting trial lawyers and helping the multibillion-dollar food business.

Democrats argue that most obesity claims have been dismissed in court, anyway.

Last year, for example, a federal judge in New York dismissed two class-action suits blaming McDonald's for making people fat.

"It protects an industry that doesn't need to be protected at this particular point and we're dealing with a problem that doesn't exist," said Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass. "The problem that does exist is that we have an obesity problem in this country."

Professor John Banzhaf (search), who is leading the lawyers arguing for their overweight clients who regularly dine at such establishments, insists the lawsuits aren't frivolous.

"Let me remind you that the smoker suits, the non-smoker suits, the suits by the states against the tobacco industry, all were originally called frivolous," Banzhaf said.

Although personal responsibility is a big factor, said Jennifer Keller of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (search), "people are confused about what eating healthy is."

Although obesity undoubtedly is a huge health problem in America, fast-food companies and some lawmakers say a certain amount of common sense should be applied when people stuff themselves with cheeseburgers and French fries.

"The fact is, it's ridiculous to blame a restaurant for when a person eats too much food," Rep. Pat Toomey (search), R-Penn., told Fox News. "It's a person's own individual decision … we ought to make it clear you can't sue a restaurant for the behavior you're responsible for yourself.

"We have a very abusive class-action lawsuit system in this country," he continued.

Many fast-food restaurants now offer leaner menus but it's up to customers whether they want to partake in a salad or a burger.

Louisiana passed similar state legislation to the bill the House passed Wednesday. Nineteen other state legislatures - Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin - have been considering similar bills, the National Conference of State Legislatures said Wednesday.

Click here for a complete report by Fox News' Brian Wilson.

Fox News' Liza Porteus, Brian Wilson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.