States Move to Shield Restaurants Against Obesity Suits

Bills to protect restaurants and food companies against lawsuits by people who claim the meals or snacks made them fat are moving ahead in the states like hamburgers passed out a drive-thru window.

Measures known as "cheeseburger bills (search)" bar people from seeking damages in court from food companies for weight gain and associated medical conditions including heart disease and diabetes.

Supporters say the proposals shield businesses from having to pay to defend themselves against frivolous suits. Opponents content the claims often are valid and ought to be heard in court.

Two cases against McDonald's (MCD) accused the company of causing obesity in thousands of children.

In dismissing the cases last year, U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet in New York said consumers ought to know that eating lots of fast food can make them fat and that they cannot ask courts to "protect them from their own excesses."

That ruling has not stopped lawyers from holding conferences on how to win such claims.

Also, the possibility of a legal defeat haunts the food industry, whose leaders say they should not be held responsible for people's eating decisions.

Many lawmakers agree.

So far this year, a dozen states have enacted laws against such suits, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (search).

A Washington state law prohibits people from suing food manufacturers, sellers and advertisers based on claims arising from people's weight gain, obesity or related health conditions.

The law, backed by the state restaurant association, keeps the responsibility for eating where it belongs, said Democratic state Rep. Patricia Lantz.

"It was so common sense," said Lantz, a trial lawyer who heads the House Judiciary Committee in her state. "Most people don't see any reason to impose liability for an individual's inability to push himself away from the dinner table."

Similar bills have won approval in other states. But efforts at passing a national shield have faltered in Congress.

One bill, sponsored by Rep. Ric Keller, R.-Fla., was passed by the House. A second, sponsored by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R.-Ky., is before a Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee.

The prospects that a ban will pass are not good because time is running out on the congressional calendar and lawmakers are facing re-election in November.

The issue is politically charged. Republicans say companies need protection from greedy lawyers. Democrats say that the courts should decide whether the cases are worth hearing.

Some consumer advocates also oppose the laws. "These cheeseburger bills are shameful efforts to deprive the public of the right to have a day in court if they feel they have been aggrieved," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (search).

Class-action lawyers will find ways around the state laws, and big fast-food companies could be their targets, predicts John Banzhaf, professor of public interest law at George Washington University (search).