Monday, February 28, 2005

"Cheeseburger Bill" Aims To Curb Fast Food Lawsuits

Munching on candy, cheese and ice cream, lawmakers on a House panel unanimously approved legislation Tuesday that would prevent overweight people from suing restaurants, food companies or farmers for their health problems. Saying the court system is "as clogged as cholesterol-filled arteries," Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, said his bill would prevent frivolous lawsuits by people seeking damages for their weight problems. He said he expects the legislation to pass the full House. Fourteen states have already enacted similar "cheeseburger bills." In a nod to Minnesota's agricultural background, Urdahl's proposal shields food growers and producers, as well as restaurants, food processors, packers, distributors and marketers. The only opposition came from the Minnesota Trial Lawyers Association, whose president, Katherine Flom, said the legislation would give food businesses wide-ranging immunity from consumer complaints. "Do you want Burger King to be your king?" she asked. But another trial lawyer, Joe Price from Faegre and Benson, said litigation will entail significant costs without solving the country's weight problems. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that almost two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight or obese. Obesity raises the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and certain cancers. Minnesota has yet to see lawsuits seeking damages from food sellers for obesity and related health problems. Urdahl said he expects such suits to come unless his bill is passed. The legislation isn't intended to prevent consumers from suing food makers for fraud if products are labeled incorrectly, he added. Support for the bill crossed party lines. Both Republicans and Democrats on the House Agriculture and Rural Development Committee also relished Urdahl's calorie-packed snacks during the hearing, with chairman Greg Davids, R-Preston, asking Urdahl to pass the ice cream. The cheeseburger bill died last year because it was introduced too late for committee hearings. It now heads to the House Civil Law and Elections Committee.