Justice for Big Food’s Victims? Three Major Fast Food Lawsuits in the Past Decade

On July 23, 2002, Caesar Barber and his attorney Samuel Hirsch filed a landmark lawsuit against McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, and Kentucky Fried Chicken, seeking damages for the medical conditions brought on by consuming these corporations’ products. The lawsuit was the first of its kind, but not the last. Subsequent lawsuits against “Big Food” corporations have suffered substantial ridicule at the hands of the media. The contention that a restaurant could be responsible for the physical condition of an unhealthy person is often considered laughable at best, fraudulent at worst, and symptomatic of a certain “litigious American” stereotype. None of these cases succeeded in court, but could they possibly have had some merit?

In Caesar Barber v. McDonald’s Corporation, et. al., Barber stated that he was unaware of the nutritional and fat content of fast food that he had ingested on a near-daily basis for decades.  The basisof the lawsuit was that these fast food chains had intentionally withheld this information from their customers. Barber further alleged that consumption of such high-fat food brought on his diabetes, obesity, and both of his heart attacks.  The judge determined that Barber and Hirsch were unable to effectively counter the defense’s argument that Barber’s personal choice to consume fast food for decades was at fault for his health issues, and not the corporations that provided the food.  The case was dismissed in 2003 “without prejudice,” but was not refiled. 

Immediately following the Barber dismissal, Hirsch went on to represent Ashley Pelman and Jazlen Bradley in Ashley Pelman et. al. v. McDonald’s Corporation, a class action suit against McDonald’s, also in New York, in 2003. Pelman and Bradley were teenagers at the time that the suit was filed, and they claimed to be the victims of the fast food giant’s intentionally deceptive marketing. They sought damages for obesity-related health problems brought on by eating McDonald’s food – in theory, for all New York children and teenagers who had suffered the health consequences of consuming their products. In 2010, Judge Donald Pogue prohibited the lawsuit from proceeding due to the fact that the lead plaintiffs were unable to provide sufficient evidence that McDonald’s had caused the medical conditions that affected all of those supposedly involved in the class action, and furthermore, that examining such conditions in each individual plaintiff would be unfeasible given the scope of the case. As a result, Pelman did not constitute a class action suit under New York law.

Monet Parham, represented by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CPSI), filed Monet Parham v. McDonald’s Corporation in California in December 2010. Parham and the CPSI contended that her daughter was being targeted by the distribution of toys in McDonald’s Happy Meals, and that Parham felt unable to prevent her from consuming McDonald’s food. Parham was dismissed April 4, 2012 by Judge Richard Kramer without right to appeal. The basis for dismissal was that the real victims of the McDonald’s Corporation’s purported advertising campaign are children, and that they were not adequately represented as plaintiffs in Ms.Parham’s suit – and furthermore, that Judge Kramer disagreed with the use of the California court system to intervene in what he interpreted as a matter of parental discipline and personal responsibility.

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