Pa. Lawmaker Wants Shield Against Obesity Lawsuits

April 26, 2005

A state legislator wants to add Pennsylvania to the list of states that protect the food industry from lawsuits in which people blame restaurants and other food vendors for making them fat.

Rep. Douglas Reichley, R-Lehigh, said he introduced his bill last month to protect the state’s agriculture and food industries because he doesn’t think they should be sued for “making food that tastes good.”

Although critics of the bill point out that no such suits have been filed in Pennsylvania, Reichley said that’s irrelevant.

“Does this mean the legislature never acts with foresight to protect companies that employ a large number of people?” he said, adding that his bill contains an exception that would permit suits when a food product is “willingly and knowingly” mishandled or mislabeled.

The debate comes as health experts are issuing warnings about the long-term effects of obesity, particularly among children. Health surveys in Pennsylvania show that a quarter of residents reported they were obese, double the number from a decade ago.

The flood of legislation across the country — dubbed by some as “cheeseburger bills” — is partly a response to a high-profile suit against McDonald’s filed by two New York City teenagers who said their burger-and-fries diet made them fat.

Lower courts in New York dismissed the case twice, but a federal appeals court reinstated part of it earlier this year. A handful of similar suits have been thrown out since the New York case was filed in 2002 and there are no other known cases pending, legal experts said.

In the last two years, 16 states have enacted laws prohibiting such obesity lawsuits; in New Mexico, lawmakers approved a “right-to-eat-enchiladas act.” The U.S. House has also approved such legislation.

Twenty-six other state legislatures, including those in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, are considering similar measures.

The bills provide food vendors and producers with immunity from civil suits based on weight gain or other health conditions caused by the long-term consumption of their food.

The legislation under consideration in Harrisburg is part of an industry strategy aimed at combating frivolous lawsuits that are leading to increases in liability-insurance rates, according to a lobbyist representing 1,800 Pennsylvania restaurants.

“To legally hold restaurants responsible for the growing obesity problem is overly simplistic and just wrong,” Patrick Conway, executive director of the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association, said last week at a House hearing on the proposed “food-purveyor immunity act.”

But Richard Daynard, director of the obesity and law project at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston, said the wave of bills is “a diversion and counterproductive.”

Daynard, who has not been involved in obesity suits against food establishments, said legal action can be a deterrent to bad behavior, while also raising awareness about obesity.

In Philadelphia, a city known for its cheesesteaks, candy cakes and soft pretzels, one restaurant owner said he’s never run into such legal trouble.

“Nobody’s threatened to sue us yet,” said Frank Oliveri, owner of Pat’s Steaks in South Philadelphia. “If they did, they’d end up on the menu.”

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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