Bill would outlaw lawsuits blaming restaurants for obesity

Published: Tuesday, January 28, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 28, 2003 at 1:06 a.m.

ORLANDO - Restaurants could not be held liable for consumers' health problems under proposed federal legislation meant to stop lawsuits that blame Big Macs and french fries for obesity and diabetes.

U.S. Rep. Ric Keller, R-Fla., filed the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act on Monday in Washington. The bill wouldn't stop lawsuits in cases where restaurants or food manufacturers failed to comply with regulatory requirements and caused illnesses such E. coli.

Keller said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., plans to introduce a similar bill in the Senate.

"We believe there should be common sense in a food court, not blaming other people in a legal court whenever there is an excessive consumption of fast food," Keller said at a news conference at his Orlando office. "We think that most people understand that it's common sense that if you eat unlimited amounts of supersize fries and milkshakes and Big Macs ... that can possibly lead to obesity and things like diabetes, cardiovascular disease."

The bill's filing comes five days after a federal judge in New York threw out a class-action lawsuit that blamed McDonald's food for children's health problems.

The attorney who filed the lawsuit, Samuel Hirsch, didn't return a phone call to his New York office seeking comment on the proposed legislation. He has said he plans to amend the suit and refile it in a month.

The Association of Trial Lawyers of America in Washington said Monday it should be up to a judge or jury, not Congress, to decide whether such cases move forward.

"Every judge in America has the right and the duty to dismiss cases that lack merit and to even fine lawyers who bring frivolous cases or offer frivolous defenses," association spokesman Carlton Carl said. "What Mr. Keller's legislation is doing cynically is saying that the U.S. Congress should not trust judges or juries, that they should be dictated to by Congress."

Similar lawsuits have been filed around the nation. Keller said such lawsuits set dangerous precedents.

"Essentially it would convert the 18-year-old kids who work in places like McDonald's into bartenders who would have to look at someone like me and say, 'Sorry congressman, I'm going to have to cut you off. I can't give you that hot apple pie. You've had enough. Look at you,'" said Keller, who packs 210 pounds onto his 5-foot-8 frame.

Keller's congressional district includes the home of Darden Restaurants Inc., owner of the Red Lobster and Olive Garden chains.

During the 2002 election cycle, food and beverage companies contributed $33,750 to the second-term congressman's re-election campaign and food processing and sales companies gave Keller $18,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.

After the news conference, Keller had a breakfast of Egg McMuffins, Chick-fil-A sandwiches and Krispy Kreme doughnuts with his staff in his office.

"I'm about 20-pounds away from being the ideal sponsor of this bill," Keller said.

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