“Where are the promised obesity lawsuits?” Evan Schaeffer asks, citing an April 18 Reuters story by Gail Appleman. (He miscredits Overlawyered with the prediction of particular timing, however; we simply quoted a Lawyers Weekly USA headline that in turn relied upon the public statements of plaintiffs’ attorneys.)
Schaeffer goes on to suggest that the several states that have enacted laws protecting the fast-food industry have wasted their time. But of course the states that bar obesity lawsuits aren’t seeing obesity lawsuits. The plaintiffs’ bar bragged about how they used the media to change the playing field for tobacco litigation, and the fast-food industry stepped forward to prevent an instant replay, and won the public debate–thus discouraging many lawyers from spearheading these actions so far ahead of public opinion, especially when state law prevented recovery. But Richard Daynard, speaking at an AEI conference on the subject last month, certainly didn’t sound like he was going to give up: “I think these cases in the long term may have viability.” And John Banzhaf complained just yesterday that a 93% downward revision by the CDC of the estimated effects of obesity was a corporate conspiracy that wouldn’t affect lawyers’ plans for future lifestyle litigation. (Joyce Howard Price, “CDC says obesity deaths overestimated”, Washington Times, Apr. 20). It’s to the credit of the plaintiffs’ bar that many recognize that the lifestyle litigators may have bitten off more than they can chew; one suspects that the true concern is that such litigation could create a backlash against the compensation culture that funds Trial Lawyers Inc.
There’s a strange disconnect in Schaeffer’s argument. He suggests that reformers are deliberately exaggerating the risk of lifestyle litigation to get legislation passed — but what would be the motivation for achieving that goal if the risk is exaggerated? If the plaintiffs’ bar is really opposed to lifestyle litigation, as Schaeffer suggests, why not score some cheap political points by supporting the legislation instead of fighting it so hard? A cynic might suggest that they’re trying to keep the door open for copycat litigation in case the pioneers find a jurisdiction that will let the claims proceed. As it is, the Pelman decision (Jan. 27) will likely cost McDonald’s shareholders millions of dollars in litigation costs.