The case against McDonald's lives on because the teenaged plaintiffs alleged they didn't know exactly what ingredients, how many calories and how much cholesterol was in each Value Meal and because McDonald's didn't warn them. Reheating a Deep Fried Case

The McLawsuit is back yet again.  A federal appeals court has reinstated the case nearly a year and a half after a federal judge dismissed (for a second time) the class action complaint, which claims that McDonald’s is responsible for the weight, girth and health of two named teenagers and countless “other similarly situated persons.”

In a six-page opinion, three federal judges decided Tuesday that, at least so far as the overweight teens’ misleading advertising claims were concerned, their allegations “more than m[et] the requirements” for the case to continue.  That’s because, according to these judges, the teens don’t have to prove they actually relied on any allegedly deceptive promotions to win their case.  In fact, according to the decision, the plaintiffs didn’t even need to show a “‘causal connection between their consumption of McDonald’s food and their alleged injuries’” in order to keep the lawsuit going.

Instead, the three judges asserted that the teenaged plaintiffs need only prove that McDonald’s advertising was “objectively misleading or deceptive” and that they “suffered injury ‘as a result.’”  But what injury did the teenagers suffer?  And why?

According to their complaint, the teens suffered injury because their consumption of McDonald’s food “significantly and substantially increased the development of … obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol intake, and/or other detrimental and adverse health effects and/or diseases.”  The complaint also claims that the teens ate at McDonald’s often because the company promoted the quality of its food.  In other words, according to the teenaged plaintiffs, the McLawsuit hinges on whether McDonald’s caused their excessive weight and poor health by inducing them to eat fast food through allegedly misleading advertising.  Thus, if McDonald’s is legally to blame, logically it must be because the teenaged plaintiffs relied on those commercial messages to their detriment.

Seen this way, the three judges aren’t just having it their way, they’re having it both ways.  On one page their decision asserts the teenagers don’t have to prove actual reliance on McDonald’s advertising in order to win the case, but on another the same opinion clearly explains that the teenagers must prove not only that the promotions were “objectively misleading or deceptive” but also that the teens suffered their weight- and health-related problems “‘as a result.’”

It used to be that a plaintiff had to prove the defendant caused their injury in order to collect.  Unfortunately, the McLawsuit has become just one more example of the rejection of this approach — and a sign post marking just how far our tort system has wandered from the age-old requirement of proving fault.  According to Tuesday’s decision, the case against McDonald’s lives on because the teenaged plaintiffs alleged they didn’t know exactly what ingredients, how many calories and how much cholesterol was in each Value Meal and because McDonald’s didn’t warn them.  Never mind the far more pertinent and obvious fact that everyone — including the teenaged plaintiffs — knows or, at the very least, should have known: Eating a Big Mac a day will not keep the doctor away.

Indeed, Tuesday’s decision — though not the first — is perhaps the most celebrated legal ruling thus far exposing the vast expansion of America’s no-fault liability regime.  On its face, the McLawsuit is a perfect example of a no-fault tort case.  The teenagers claim they aren’t to blame for their excessive size and poor health because they couldn’t count every last calorie in their burgers and fries.  And McDonald’s logically can’t be at fault because no one forced the teenagers to overeat there.

Nevertheless, as more and more companies are learning, in America, someone has to pay, and in the no-fault world where causation is no longer a factor, it’s usually the one with the deepest pockets, whether actually to blame or not.

January 27, 2005
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