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24.1.03

Court Dismisses McDonald's Obesity Case

A lawsuit by a group of American teenagers who claim the fast food chain McDonald's is responsible for their obesity has been thrown out of court by a New York judge.

"It is not the place of the law to protect them against their own excesses," Judge Robert Sweet said, adding the suit failed to "allege sufficiently" McDonald's food is addictive.


This is good news, if not particularly surprising news to those of us who think that the epidemic of frivolous big-dollar lawsuits is as much an artefact of media coverage as of the courts. Even if the case doesn't become a tort reformers' urban legend with the fact of the case's dismissal dropped, just filing the suit (with the attendant media coverage) has done its damage. As Fox News predicted so well, fat people suing purveyors of food is an archetypal frivolous lawsuit. It even provides a parallel between the gluttony which is presumed to have caused the obesity, and the palintiffs' greed for money. It helped to cement in the public mind the idea that Americans will sue anyone rather than take personal responsibility, and in so doing increased the likelihood of future frivolous lawsuits ("if those people could sue McDonald's for making them fat, then why shouldn't I sue over my problem?").

Of course, filing a frivolous lawsuit isn't necessarily a big problem -- the case against the frivolous lawsuit epidemic rests on the fact that judges have a history of dismissing the worst suits and reducing the damages on those that end in a conviction. A perception that there are lots of stupid lawsuits out there may even make juries less sympathetic to the plaintiffs, because they're identified with a much-reviled archetype (though it could have the opposite effect, if it alters jurors' perceptions of what a normal response to a particular type of case would be, given that people are inclined to do what seems socially typical). What could be a problem is altering the defendant's perception of what suits are likely to win. If defendants believe that frivolous lawsuits routinely get big payouts, they're more likely to settle out of court on a case that in reality they would have won in court (as has happened with medical malpractice). The media coverage given to many suits doubtless encourages settling, since any court-related publicity is bad publicity no matter who wins. All in all, the epidemic of frivolous lawsuits could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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