Fat Chance

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As noted yesterday, U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet has dismissed the lawsuit filed against McDonald's by fat New York teenagers who blame the fast food chain for their obesity. "This opinion is guided by the principle that legal consequences should not attach to the consumption of hamburgers and other fast-food fare unless consumers are unaware of the dangers of eating such food," Sweet wrote. "If consumers know the potential ill-health effect of eating at McDonald's, they cannot blame McDonald's if they, nonetheless, choose to satiate their appetite with a surfeit of supersized McDonald's products."

As anyone who is familiar with the history of tobacco litigation knows, this will not be the end of the story. Back in 1965, the Restatement (Second) of Torts took it for granted that the hazards of smoking were common knowledge. Explaining how plaintiffs could recover damages for a defective product, it said:

?"The article sold must be dangerous beyond that which would be contemplated by the ordinary consumer who purchases it, with the ordinary knowledge common to the community as to its characteristics. Good whiskey is not unreasonably dangerous merely because it will make some people drunk, and is especially dangerous to alcoholics; but bad whiskey, containing a dangerous amount of fusel oil, is unreasonably dangerous. Good tobacco is not unreasonably dangerous merely because the effects of smoking may be harmful; but tobacco containing something like marijuana may be unreasonably dangerous. Good butter is not unreasonably dangerous merely because, if such be the case, it deposits cholesterol in the arteries and leads to heart attacks; but bad butter, contaminated with poisonous fish oil, is unreasonably dangerous."

Yet smokers were ultimately able to recover damages for tobacco-related illness, even though they knew the habit was risky. If judges and juries can reject common sense in dealing with tobacco, why not in dealing with butter—or, in this case, cheeseburgers?

NEXT: The Need for Speed

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  1. Mr. Sullum,

    I feel that it is necessary to point out that the McDonalds Corporation never intended our fine food products to become a staple of a persons daily diet, but rather as a delicious, quick, and satisfying treat to be enjoyed by patrons on an occasional basis.

    Again, we here at the McDonalds Corporation would like to thank the Reason staff for their continued fair and insightful coverage of our impending legal crisis.

    The Hamburglar
    V.P. Legal Affairs
    McDonalds Corporation

  2. It is really funny (actually its quite sad) that The Onion’s story is frightfully coming true.

    Their story about the war against Big Chocolate:

    http://www.theonion.com/onion3626/hersheys_pay_obese.html

  3. If tobacco companies increased nicotine without notifying their customers, perhaps that is grounds for some type of lawsuit, along the lines of the successful one against McDonalds’ because their ‘fried in vegetable oil’ fries had actually been fried in animal fat at one point in their manufacture. However that does not necessarily make the product more dangerous, and it may make it less so. As has been pointed out by critics of the US policy on marijuanna, stronger pot means you need to smoke less of it to achieve the same affects.

    I doubt adding additional nicotine to cigarettes makes them any more fundamentally addictive than the extra alcohol in rum makes it more addictive than beer. Most alcoholics can get drunk on either, and most of the rest of us can moderate our consumption of either. It seems likely to me the nicotine was increased because the tobacco companies knew that consumers desiring nicotine would find the ‘boosted’ cigarettes somehow more satisfying than the ‘regular’ versions offered by their competitors. Since they’ve spent years downplaying the signifcance of nicotine in order to deny addictiveness, they couldn’t just come out and advertise a higher nicotine level. Instead, they’ve opted to advertise increased ‘flavor’.

  4. With the tobacco companies, it’s hard to say how it would have ended up since they eventually decided to settle. But I think the major difference, legally, is that McDonald’s never claimed that it’s food was healthy or good for you, nor are they on the record for denying the harmful effects of their product to their customers.

    Smoking isn’t “unreasonably dangerous,” per se, but the law does require adequate warning on products. Again, how the law would have turned out is difficult to tell since the tobacco companies settled.

  5. (nobody will probably care by now but…)
    IMHO, the tobacco companies managed their “losing” brilliantly. In the settlement, they:
    1) created a gov’t guaranteed massive cash flow.
    2) created a gov’t guaranteed cartel, excluding serious competitors by inflicting the same price range the tobacco companies are required to maintain.
    3) made sure the smoke-money monkey is firmly attached to the gov’t back such that the politicians will never be able to kick the habit and will, therefore, be protected by the gov’t on a never-ending basis. (see 2 above)

    the tobacco companies were brilliant.

  6. Jacob – I fear that you are correct on this one. The idiocy of judges and juries knows no bounds when it comes to extracting monetary compensation from “evil corporations” and giving it to other idiots who were too stupid or too lazy to educate themselves about the risks of their own behavior. I fully expect that, in another ten or twenty years or so, McDonald’s will be just as villified (if not moreso) by lawyers and the liberal media for “poisoning helpless American victims”. The idiocy is coming. You can’t stop it.

  7. And I always thought that good tobacco HAD marijuana in it.

  8. Didn’t tobacco companies deliberately increase the harmfulness of their products – specifically to boost their addictive qualities?

  9. As a smoker, and one who loves fast food, these people are ruining my life! Regardless, I don’t have any numbers, but I’ll bet that significantly overweight people cost the states and the federal government more in health-care dollars than do smokers. Shouldn’t the states just sue people individually for bad lifestyle habits? I’m kidding — sort of.

  10. In my mind, a successful lawsuit against McDonald’s would have been simply karmic retribution for the time McD’s used British libel laws to
    sue pamphleteers who claimed that McDonald’s food was unhealthy
    . Sadly, this foolish lawsuit was not allowed to go forward and get back at the corporate lawyers.

  11. EMAIL: nospam@nospampreteen-sex.info
    IP: 210.18.158.254
    URL: http://preteen-sex.info
    DATE: 05/20/2004 09:46:33
    Live your beliefs and you can turn the world around.

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