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Last week we reported that the US House of Representatives voted in favor of legislation that would prevent citizens from filing class action suits against fast food restaurants and food companies blaming them for making people fat and unhealthy. The legislation, dubbed the “cheeseburger bill,” is similar to laws passed in 21 states and now goes to the US Senate. The House passed a similar bill last year, but the Senate ran out of time to vote on it.

Our comment was that it is an “unpopular view to express in a venue like this, but we profoundly disagree with these protectionist bills. Not that we think that people shouldn’t be responsible for their own health and diets. We do.

“But the question is whether the bills exists to force people to be responsible for themselves, or to protect companies that now may be free to make less responsible decisions. We simply believe in due process. If lawsuits are without merit, then they shouldn’t succeed. But due process seems to us to be an important element of our democracy that shouldn’t be cast aside in select cases.”

We were right. It was an unpopular view.

MNB user Geoff Harper wrote:

I understand your desire to maintain due process, but something has to be done about meritless lawsuits. They cost us all a huge amount of money. I support the bill that would stop people from suing the gun manufacturers - did they pull the trigger? I despair in the national inability to control malpractice awards that are crippling the health care system. And the Massachusetts legislature just emasculated a repeat drunk driver bill (5 of the 6 panel members are defense lawyers!). I have some good friends and family members who are lawyers, and I have a lot of respect for a lot of lawyers. However, "due process" costs the defendant thousands or millions of dollars that we end up paying. There needs to be a balance.

MNB user Dave Carlson wrote:

We fundamentally disagree on the value of blocking "nuisance" lawsuits. Many citizens seem to believe that when meeting misfortune they brought upon themselves, they deserve a lottery ticket in court. They've learned that they may win a jackpot, but, if not, can often get a settlement, when the legal cost of defense exceeds the settlement cost. While you make the point that a suit without merit should not succeed, the costs are still high and unwarranted. Conscience is not a deterrent for these folks.

I witness this waste in most industries. What is the cost of all the placards and printed warnings on every kind of item that reflect nothing more than the most basic common sense? I'd barely be surprised to see a warning on tent packaging saying: "Caution: Pitching this tent in the travel lanes of an interstate highway, and/or occupying it in such a location, may cause serious injury or death". In the U.S., the pendulum is way left of reasonable personal accountability.

Nuisance lawsuits fatten opportunistic and unethical lawyers just as surely as constant consumption of Double Whoppers and Super-Sized fries fattens the fast food customer. Let's try, as a society, to find more admirable and constructive work for these legal resources. To your well-intended point, common sense should not need legislation as a crutch. Unfortunately, many Americans either refuse to accept responsibility for their own actions, or can't resist the temptation of, (and pardon the reference to food), a free lunch. Of course, that free lunch is provided at the general public's expense, though equivalent price increases.

MNB user Carla Alexander wrote:

I could not disagree more with your opinion about the fast food lawsuits. It only takes one uninformed, greedy litigant and one shifty, greedy attorney and you have a lawsuit. Even if the lawsuit fails, it still costs the defendant (in this case the fast food industry) and that cost (fair or not) is passed on to those of us who stand to gain NOTHING.

I am firmly in favor of due process, but ANYTHING can be abused and when the abuse becomes a burden to the whole, it has to be legislated for the betterment of society. Would that everyone only utilized the system for legitimate wrongs, but that is NOT the case. In theory you are 100% right, but in practice, you are off base.

MNB user Al Kober wrote:

Just the fact that our government has to spend their time deciding if the sellers of food are responsible for making people fat and unhealthy is .... well, stupid, Can't think of any other word to describe it.

Some laws are just stupid, and some people are stupid. (love that word) Ignorance and stupidity are different. People without knowledge are ignorant. People with knowledge and don't know how to use that knowledge are stupid.

The Cheeseburger Bill is one that should not even need to be considered. It's stupid. The fact that we have to deal with or consider one like this just revels just how far we as a society have gone into the arena of stupid. Enough with the stupid talk.

God has created us all with the ability to choose, knowing that each choice has consequences. If we do not like the consequences, choose something else. This is true in most areas of life. If you are having problems, trouble, what ever, trace it back to where it began and you will find it started with a poor choice that you made. The defense that 'It is not my fault" is nonsense. If you just stop and think about the consequences before making the decision, most bad consequences can be eliminated. The problem is that we want what the wrong choice will get us but we do not want the consequences that comes with it. Sorry, can't have it both ways. Cause and effect, action and reaction. That's the way it is. And no matter how many laws are passed, or how many wrong decisions we make, the consequences from that action will always be the same.

MNB user Tom Thomas wrote:

Although I am not in favor of protectionist legislation, your belief in due process is a little too simplistic: "If lawsuits are without merit, then they shouldn't succeed". You're overlooking the huge legal expense incurred in contesting frivolous claims, regardless of the outcome, as well as the lost time of key employees in depositions, court appearances, travel time and expense, etc. All of this expense is the main reason that most suits eventually are "settled" for a fraction of the cost of a protracted legal battle. With a settlement, has not the plaintiff, with an attorney on contingency, who filed a lawsuit that eating at a certain restaurant caused him to gain weight, actually succeeded in the mission of monetary gain? And how does the restaurateur, whether large or small, recoup his losses, other than passing them on to you and me through price? Where do we draw the line in the sand on frivolous lawsuits for which we all bear the cost eventually?

It's a fine line between the rights of the individual, and the welfare of the masses. To hold a food server responsible for health hazards caused by foreign objects, unsanitary practices, etc makes sense; to hold him responsible because I chose to eat his fare because I liked it and it made me overweight isn't. The advisory labels and news media keep us aware of the danger lurking in a cheeseburger; customers getting fat from overeating them just doesn't seem to be a sound basis for litigious action.

Once again your early morning missive has provided "food for thought"..with no obesity worries!

Another MNB user wrote:

What about the people that pursue deep-pocketed companies with frivolous claims, simply because they know that the company is likely to pursue a quiet settlement (for the sake of financial expediency)? Having seen up close how costly it is for a corporation to righteously defend every claim that is made against it (legal fees, management time, etc.), I support this legislation. It cuts the ambulance chasers off at the pass.

And another:

In my opinion there is merit to the so-called Cheeseburger Bill. While I agree with you that it doesn't make sense to give any industry a 'free pass', we also know that responding to class action lawyers, regardless of merits of a particular case, tie up enormous amounts of corporate (and societal) resources and energy that could be better spent doing something productive. Until there are penalties for bringing unsuccessful class action suits, or meaningful controls against self serving class attorneys leveraging anti-corporation juries to line their own pockets, legislation like the Cheeseburger Bill, to the extent it encourages these lawyers to ply their trade elsewhere, is a step in the right direction.

I could not disagree with you more Kevin. In a perfect world we could expect due process to work correctly, but in today's "it's not my fault" society, companies need protection from frivolous lawsuits. The only people benefiting from these lawsuits are the lawyers, while we the consumer pays the "tax" of their actions through higher prices to cover the drain on earnings. Consumer education, mandatory school nutrition/health classes, and personal responsibility are the keys to addressing the obesity issue. After all, we do live in a free choice society ...

MNB user Dan Jones wrote:

Kevin, you are right if we had a better legal system. If the suit is without merit, and the “harmed party” also had to pay the defendants legal costs, then these suits without merit would never get off the ground. The problem is, the companies find it better to “settle” for payments to avoid the cost of defending these inane cases, and those costs get passed along to the rest of us.

I wish we would fix the root cause, but until we do, we will have industry-applied band-aids like this.

MNB user Kathie Fusting wrote:

You are WAY OFF BASE on this one. There is nothing addictive about fast food. The fact that some people CHOOSE to lead unhealthy lifestyles is a burden that the rest of us, including the fast food places, should not have to bear.

And MNB user Jim Farina wrote:

In general, I agree with you that Congress has much more important business in front of it than protecting the restaurant industry (and yesterday, the gun industry) from product liability lawsuits.

If a company makes an unsafe or intentionally harmful product, then it should be dragged into the court system. If the legal standard is that the product malfunctioned, was dangerous by design, or was made unsafe by something that the company did to modify it, those issues can be adjudicated in the court system.

The reality is, weak-kneed judges fail to control the legal system by dismissing these suits as the nuisance tactic that they are. Companies are forced to spend a lot of money defending themselves when legally they have done nothing wrong. Or submit to blackmail to make the lawsuits go away.

Restaurants are not doing anything to hide the fact that prepared foods are not the healthiest choice a consumer could make. They publish nutritional information for anything that they serve and offer healthy alternatives. Even a dullard recognizes that a steady diet of fast food is unhealthy and likely to have health consequences.

Companies make choices to sell products based on consumer demand; if consumers didn't want fatty cheeseburgers, fast food restaurants would slowly go out of business. But clearly people vote everyday with their wallets for fatty, unhealthy foods. This is a personal choice, not one that should be adjudicated by our court system. And if there are consequences for making bad choices, they should be born by the people who made them, not by the companies that fried a few cheeseburgers.

We weren’t entirely by ourselves, though…

One MNB user wrote:

I would agree with your POV and add that the same goes for the gun bill. Now consumers have lost a vital power/voice when it comes the behavior of both the food companies and the gun companies.

And another MNB user wrote:

The other problem with legislating rather than litigating is that the legislation is often packed with provisions that have nothing to do with the problem the legislation supposedly addresses. I suspect the Cheeseburger bill is no different.


We certainly are sympathetic to the idea that nuisance lawsuits create burden on the system that is cultural, logistical and financial.

You’re right about the fact that there is a certain “in a perfect world” quality to our argument.

Our problem is that we think that you have to behave sometimes like you live in a perfect world. You have to offer due process to everyone, even those who would abuse it, because that’s the right thing to do. You have to try and build in safeguards and obstacles to the nuisance suits, but not at the risk of stopping people from filing legitimate claims.

We keep thinking that if these kinds of protections existed decades ago, nobody would have been able to sue the tobacco companies. And we remain firmly convinced that those companies deserved to be brought to their knees because of the public health fraud they foisted upon the American public, and continue to foist upon the rest of the world, which should know better.

(As we’ve mentioned here before, our mother was a two-pack-a-smoker for four decades. She died of lung cancer in her mid-sixties. We would never file a suit nor would we be party to one, because we believe, in our heart, that she should have known better, should have tried harder. But that doesn’t stop us from rooting for those who did file suits.)

We can agree to disagree on this one.

In the end, we believe that protectionist legislation that can be viewed as anti-consumer is not good for business. At least, not in the long term. It creates distance and barriers between consumers and business that ought not be there. It creates the impression, accurate or not, that profit and loss is more important that consumers’ welfare. We’re not sure that this is the message that ought to be getting out, no matter how true or untrue it may be.

And finally, on the subject of standing fast against short-term impulses, and just because we’ve always thought that these are among the most elegant lines written in modern theatre, let us once again quote from “A Man For All Seasons” by Robert Bolt, in which he has Thomas More utter the following:

If we lived in a State where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us good, and greed would make us saintly. And we'd live like animals or angels in the happy land that needs no heroes.

But since in fact we see that avarice, anger, envy, pride, sloth, lust and stupidity commonly profit far beyond humility, chastity, fortitude, justice and thought, and have to choose, to be human al all … why then, perhaps we must stand fast a little--even at the risk of being heroes.

Thought for the week.
KC's View: