Letter: Defending lawsuits

Two letters to the editor asked why parents are not solely responsible when their children become obese and suffer diseases like diabetes from eating out frequently at McDonald’s. The simple answer is that, under the doctrine of family immunity, children usually cannot sue their parents. That is one reason why the law allows children who have been harmed by products to sue the manufacturers and says that any alleged negligence by the parents is not a valid legal defense in such law suits. This law has been applied for decades to hundreds of products, from lawn darts to over-the-counter drugs. While providing a strong and clear warning may sometimes be a defense (look on your television set or hair dryers to see warnings about dangers), McDonald’s provided no such warnings – although it is now (after the suit was filed) beginning to experiment with them.

On the broader issue of “responsibility,” there is no reason to believe that there is less “personal responsibility” or “parental responsibility” today than there was 20 or 30 years ago, so a decline can not be the major cause of our sudden epidemic of obesity. That’s why every major report and study on the problem has identified the proliferation of fast food restaurants – with their ubiquitous commercials and super-sized portions – as a major culprit.

I believe that fast food outlets have an obligation to make a clear and conspicuous disclosure of calories and fat content (like we find on packaged food in stores). They should also provide appropriate warnings if they want to argue that even adult customers should be solely responsible for their own obesity-related health problems.

Finally, if these law suits are so frivolous, why:
-did McDonald’s pay over $12 million to settle the first one filed?
-did the fast food industry seek congressional protection from such
suits?
-does the fast food industry spend so much money on ads attacking me?
-do so many experts say that, after the tobacco suits, nothing is impossible?

-John F. Banzhaf III
Public interest law professor

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