While US class-action specialists launch hundreds of cases a year in the hope of hitting the jackpot, corporate lawyers are poring over their clients’ potential liabilities in case their sector becomes the next tobacco or asbestos.
Fat used to be a feminist issue. Now it is a legal one. When JPMorgan, the Wall Street investment bank, tells food companies they need to watch how they encourage people to indulge in their products for fear of obesity and health-related litigation, it may seem that the trend for speculative lawsuits has gone too far.
JP Morgan’s recent stark warning to food and drinks groups, identifying the likes of Hershey, Cadbury Schweppes, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo at the top of the danger list, seems to confirm fears that obesity is the most obvious new battleground.
But Victor Schwartz, general counsel to the American Tort Reform Association, says companies still have time to prevent lawsuits turning ugly. “As far as food lawsuits go, I think they are at least five years away,” he says.
He believes litigation against fast food groups faces some crucial problems, particularly in proving that any company’s products were the definitive reason for obesity or heart disease, which can be influenced by so many factors. “It is also hard for anyone to believe you only ate in, say, McDonald’s or Burger King, and so it is that company that is liable,” he adds. “And the popularity of fast food is so great in the US it is hard to believe juries are going to find against them.”
Indeed, an attempt by Ashley Pelman, aged 14 and weighing 170lb, and Jazlyn Bradley, her 270lb co-plaintiff, to sue McDonald’s for making them fat was thrown out by a US court in February.
But that is not to say the food companies can relax. “I say food lawsuits are five years away because if the companies do not handle their public relations correctly, [public sentiment] could change in that time.”