Minnesota House panel OKs bill barring fast-food lawsuits
ST. PAUL If you eat too much junk food and get fat, should you be able to sue? No, according to a much-celebrated -- and much-debated -- proposal to give the food industry immunity from lawsuits that made an encore appearance in the Minnesota Leg...
If you eat too much junk food and get fat, should you be able to sue?
No, according to a much-celebrated -- and much-debated -- proposal to give the food industry immunity from lawsuits that made an encore appearance in the Minnesota Legislature on Monday.
By a voice vote that followed a spirited debate , the House Civil Law Committee approved, mostly along party lines, the so-called "Cheeseburger Bill," sending it to the full House.
The bill, formally known as the "Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act," has been proposed repeatedly by Rep. Dean Urdahl, a Grove City Republican, since early in the last decade when the media began publicizing the first of several lawsuits against fast-food restaurants over the health effects of their fare.
No such lawsuit has ever been filed in Minnesota, but Urdahl predicted, "It's just a matter of time." Urdahl's reasoning behind wanting the immunity, which is supported by myriad food corporations and interest groups, from growers to snack food associations, is simple, he said: "People are responsible for their own actions, particularly where food is concerned."
Critics of the proposal, however, such as Rep. John Lesch, a St. Paul Democrat, said the plan lets corporations off the hook from their own responsibility. "Responsibility cuts both ways," Lesch said. Lesch drew multiple analogies -- from lung-damaging asbestos to explosion-vulnerable Ford Pintos -- to make the point that companies
often distribute and sell harmful products whose hazards aren't known to anyone outside the manufacturers, but could be revealed through lawsuits.
Monday's debate quickly descended into a battle of analogies, as well as a referendum on whether society is too litigious.
"Let's say I choose to eat 100 bananas and my stomach ruptures," said Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, a Glencoe Republican. "That's not the banana growers' fault."
Rep. Steve Drazkowski, a Republican from Mazeppa, said the proposal offers badly needed reform. "I think (the bill is) exactly on track to where we need to go here in society," he said. "Our society has gotten to be a sue-happy society."
Joel Carlson, a lobbyist for the Minnesota Association for Justice (formerly known as the Minnesota Trial Lawyers Association), said such a statement was "disingenuous," citing court statistics showing the number of personal-injury claims filed in Minnesota fell 30 percent from 1998 to 2009. Moreover, he said, the proposal isn't needed because Minnesota law already has provisions that presume people are responsible for their own actions. "That's the reason cases haven't been brought in Minnesota," he said.
The Cheeseburger Bill has twice passed the House in the past 10 years only to die in the Senate. This year, Sen. David Hann, a Republican from Eden Prairie, has agreed to introduce a version in the Senate.
Urdahl said he never expected to be pushing the bill this year. "I vowed last time I'd never do it again -- until the Republicans gained control," he said. "I thought that would be forever."
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.