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Fat Cats Are Defendants, Too

Uproar over obesity lawsuits hides larger concern of consumers' right to sue companies

By The Crimson Staff

A new SizeUSA survey reveals that the average American woman wears a size14 dress. It also saddles 19 percent of American men with the onerous distinction of having “lower front waists.” With America looking larger than ever, it’s no wonder Americans are looking for someone to blame. But the recent phenomenon of Americans suing fast food makers for their glut of guts has largely been met with bitter scowls. According to a 2003 Gallup poll, 89 percent of the country opposes them, believing that—as Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., put it—fat people should “look in the mirror” for the source of their problems. However, the U.S. Congress is wrong in its attempts to ensure that the other 11 percent never has its day in court.

The House voted 276-139 this month to approve a bill exempting the fast food industry from obesity lawsuits. While these lawsuits may seem silly to some lawmakers, their merit should be decided in a court of law, not in the court of public opinion.

Fast food makers have a less-than-stellar public health record, as Eric Schlosser exposed in his book Fast Food Nation. To deny that the industry could in no way be deemed culpable for its obesity-promoting tactics would be naive. Admittedly, not every lawsuit holds the same weight, and proponents of blanket immunity often counter that legislation is needed to prevent the onslaught of frivolous lawsuits that might follow a single successful case. But just as the real solution to obesity is not blaming the fast food industry and leaving it at that, the real solution to frivolous lawsuits is not the immunization of entire industries—a precedent that could restrict Americans’ ability to punish corporate wrongdoing. Baseless lawsuits should be promptly dismissed; if any of these lawsuits are indeed without merit, then the courts will rule that way. The House should keep its hands out of a private citizen’s right to confront corporations in court.

Corporate responsibility goes hand-in-hand with consumer responsibility. Democrats who voted against the bill are not against consumers taking responsibility for their personal choices; instead they believe, rightly, that it is irresponsible to shield entire industries through legislation. Congressional Republicans have found another divisive wedge issue for the election season, and we expect they will exploit it.

But when, in October, Republicans cite Democratic House candidates’ votes against this ban on fast food lawsuits, American consumers should remember who stood up for their rights to redress corporate wrongs. In an age where companies have defaulted on morality and responsibility to the detriment of ordinary Americans, the ability to hold these companies accountable is imperative. A furor over lower front waists and larger dress sizes shouldn’t obscure the larger goal: promoting corporate responsibility.

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