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Barbara Walking in the Valley
A weekly column for those who live and walk in Silicon Valley

by Barbara Dahlgren

Regulate or Litigate
Column for the week of January 26-February 1, 2003

As the old saying goes “If you can't regulate, litigate.” That’s what we do in the good old U.S. of A. We can’t regulate so we litigate, litigate, litigate.

The latest frivolous lawsuit award goes to Banzhaf and Hirsch in New York, who represent a group of obese children suing McDonald’s for making them fat. This was a follow up to a lawsuit they brought the middle of last year on behalf of Caesar Barber, an overweight guy with health problems who blamed his condition on the fast food industry. So far neither case has flown but don’t count Banzhaf out. It took him decades to get the tobacco industry but get them, he did. What sounds frivolous today can sound logical tomorrow. Public opinion can change. Witness the multi-million-dollar verdicts against the tobacco companies that eventually came to pass.

In the latest case Judge Sweet showed some common sense, a most uncommon trait today, and threw the suit out in its entirety. Sweet ruled, "It is not the place of the law to protect [people] from their own excesses," noting that "nobody is forced to eat at McDonald's." Be that as it may, the die has already been cast. Similar lawsuits will follow. Banzhaf knows how to go after the fat cats, so to speak. And lawyers keeping up to one half of the plaintiffs’ awarded money provides a hefty incentive for these kinds of suits. Sweet did say the teens could refile the case in a federal court.

No one denies that fat is a problem. The Surgeon General declared obesity America's soon-to-be number one killer. The American Heart Association added obesity to its list of major risk factors for disease, declaring it a "dangerous epidemic." And to help curb this epidemic, the government of West Virginia has initiated a statewide media campaign. Billboards are being displayed showing a potbellied man holding a hamburger. The oversized caption reads: “Super Size Food – A Super Size You.” I’m sure that will help and it’s nice to see tax dollars being spent wisely.

Lawyers can’t be blamed for all the frivolous lawsuits. They couldn’t do it without a willing person wanting to blame someone else for their situation. What will be next?
Will drunks be able to sue the liquor and brewery companies because they can’t resist the urge to “tie one on?” Will couch potatoes be able to sue the television industry for their catatonic state? Will children sue moms for not providing a healthy diet? Maybe the hearing impaired can sue rock music for being deafening. Perhaps citizens can sue politicians for not keeping their campaign promises. Will students sue teachers because they don’t learn anything? Maybe parishioners can sue their clergy for being doctrinally incorrect. Will they let gamblers sue casinos for not stopping them from losing their shirt, car, and house? And worst of all, will they sue Krispy Kreme? If you don't think those donuts are addictive, you’ve never had one.

We all want to blame someone else for our lack of self-control and our poor choices.

This is not a new phenomenon. It’s almost older than dirt. In Genesis 3 when Adam ate the forbidden fruit, he blamed Eve. Eve blamed the serpent. Adam even went so far as to blame God when he said, “It was the wife YOU gave me.” And thus we have been blaming everyone else for our bad decisions ever since. Who me? Make a mistake? You must be kidding. As Flip Wilson would say, “The devil made me do it.” Well, the devil may lead us to the cliff but we choose to follow and jump off. The bottom line is we can’t regulate ourselves, so we litigate others. That’s why lawyers don’t have to buy meals at McDonalds. They can afford to get fat at more prestigious, expensive bistros.

©January 2003

Be sure to visit this page every week to read the next edition of Walking in the Valley. You can write to the author at bdahlgren@wcgsouthbay.org.



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