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Monday, 29 July, 2002, 11:52 GMT 12:52 UK
Fast food: Can you sue if it makes you fat?
A 20-stone driver who lived on burgers is suing several US fast food giants who he says caused his obesity and poor health.

The man suffered two heart attacks and developed diabetes before his doctor explained that he needed to change his diet of takeaways.

He claims he always believed fast food was good for him and joins a group of plaintiffs bringing a lawsuit against McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The group says they were misinformed by the food chains and were tempted into choosing fatty, sugary and salty foods which caused their bad health.

McDonald's have previously paid out in big lawsuits, including a $2.7m sum to a woman who spilled a cup of coffee into her lap - which she claimed was too hot.

Do you think the obese plaintiffs have a case? Are the food chains liable for people being overweight? Are we becoming too litigious?

This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

Your reaction

As a US citizen, this lawsuit embarrasses me. However, as a teacher, I do wish there was a movement to prohibit fast food chains from selling their goods in the public schools. Unfortunately, many of these companies offer districts large amounts of money in order to sell to a captive, voraciously hungry student body. I work in a high school which serves this kind of food. Unfortunately, I see many, many overweight teenagers there and it scares me to think how overweight and unhealthy they will be as adults.
Jill, USA

Sometimes making healthy choices is harder than making unhealthy ones. As a university student on a strict budget, I'm often dismayed at how much cheaper fast food and junk food is compared to healthy food. Luckily I get enough exercise but there are a lot of people who don't. Not necessarily because they are lazy but because the way things are arranged here you really DO have to drive everywhere. The towns are sprawling with everything miles apart. I guess I think that if this man really is just trying to prove a point and not after monetary gain, then I see no harm in it. And maybe some people could look at his message in a different light.
April W, USA

The companies involved are only in it for one thing and it's not our health

Kathy, Scotland
Whilst I think it's ridiculous that such a case should ever come to court it will be a good thing if it serves to open up the debate about the level of responsibility of fast food companies should take about the effect of their products. There are now unheard of levels of obesity in countries such as Japan, which until recently did not have fast food chains (and in fact were otherwise a very healthy nation).This seems more than a coincidence to me. At a time when 14 million African people are on the brink of starvation it is ironic that on the other side of the globe can now eat themselves to death. In the UK we too now live in a fast food culture and the companies involved are only in it for one thing and it's not our health.
Kathy, Scotland

Should the case be thrown out? Absolutely. Fast food is only part of a much larger consumer culture that contributes to obesity. The trucker knew he was eating garbage. America is fat for many reasons. Television has hijacked real culture, and replaced it with corporate consumerism. Buy more, eat more, sit more. The nation's past-time used to be playing baseball. Now its watching baseball. No wonder everyone here is fat. My roommates and I destroyed our TV two years ago, and its the best thing we ever did for our quality of life.
John K, USA

I read every ingredient list before I buy a food product, and it is disturbing to read the amount of fat and sugar that is in nearly all of the foods. It is no secret that fatty and sugary foods are hazardous to a healthy lifestyle, but there is so much sugar and fat in American supermarkets and restaurants, that it is nearly impossible to maintain a healthy diet.

I do feel that it is this man's responsibility to control what he takes into his body, but I do feel that his lawsuit has SOME merit as it may bring further attention to this issue; His efforts would be BETTER directed towards a campaign to change the atmosphere concerning food in the US through education and activism, rather than tying up the legal system with another money-making lawsuit.
Paul K, USA

No one force fed him

Nehal T, UK
This is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. No one force fed him. How can you blame someone for your own lack of control? I suspect this could only happen in the US.
Nehal T, UK

I'm thinking of taking the brewers of Stella to court, after consuming eight pints of their premium lager. While I felt fine last night, in fact elated at some points, I'm not so well this morning and believe it may have something to do with the lager. Shouldn't I have been warned about this product? Is this ludicrous?
Don, Scotland

Until lawyers stop taking these ridiculous cases - hoping for a big payout - and judges stop awarding unbelievably high damages (like $2.7m dollars for a hot cup of coffee) people are going to be tempted to try and sue over the slightest things. Common sense has disappeared from justice, and until it returns the situation is going to get worse.
Simon, UK

For years pressure groups, research and common sense have pointed out that this type of diet is unhealthy. This litigious action only serves to highlight the intellectual deficit of some individuals who unquestioningly accept the allegedly non-biased words of the multinational's PR machine.
Mark, UK

McDonalds were not hiding the ball

Chris, USA
They do not have a case. The tobacco companies withheld information that may have led a reasonable person to conclude that smoking causes cancer. The fast food companies didn't withhold any adverse information. There have been numerous studies which conclude that consumption of fatty foods without exercise causes obesity. McDonalds were not hiding the ball. Those persons belittling lawyers reveal their ignorance of the workings of a strong, vigilant justice system.
Chris, USA

As an American attorney who has spent the last 10 years defending employers in lawsuits, I can honestly say this new theory of liability is not in the least bit surprising. It typifies one of the most overlooked cultural deficiencies in the US - a rampant and deplorable refusal to acknowledge any personal responsibility for individual behaviour. If you're obese, there are two potential culprits, you and/or your genes. It's not McDonald's fault. I sympathise, but cannot accept any rationalisation of a lawsuit against a restaurant.
Michael, USA

As a thin American I find this totally embarrassing

Victoria, USA
As a thin American I find this totally embarrassing. To think that half of us are obese due to our own inactivity and poor eating habits is outrageous. And now we're blaming fast food chains - give me a big fat break! There are way too many people not taking responsibility for their lives and junking up the court systems moaning about it.
Victoria, USA

This is simply ridiculous. I understand that some people have a genetic predisposition to being overweight but 50% of the American population? People are just eating way too much food, and not exercising enough. Every fast food restaurant supplies the caloric content of their food. Did anyone force then to super size their meals? I just don't understand.
Kena, USA

Sack the lawyers and give them jobs flipping burgers

Alan, USA
Enough. Sack the lawyers and give them jobs flipping burgers. Anyone currently running a hot-dog stand gets promoted to High Court Judge. Maybe (un)common sense will return.
Alan, USA, ex-UK

The trouble with fast food is that the food has high fat and sugar levels. There are hardly any healthy fast food places. I feel sorry for this man as he had to get something quick to eat due to his busy time schedule. If anyone wants to start off in business, may I suggest opening a drive-thru salad bar?
Laura Mason, UK

Well maybe these people should be suing the US government for failing to advise them not to eat fatty foods. It's like when cigarette advertising was on TV, broadcasters were obliged to devote an equal share of time to the pro and anti smoking lobby. If we did the same thing for the pro and anti McDonalds lobby, we'd probably all be thin as pencils and be able to run to work rather than take the car!
Khaled Shivji, UK

If you are so pathetic as to blame a fast food chain for your obesity and laziness you are not showing very high levels of intellect.
Nici Warriker, UK

This is the pinnacle of living the American dream: Get great service from a company and use its wonderful product over and over again. Then blame them for your own greed and gluttony. So, why not live the good life and sue them? Who knows, they might pay for your retirement. Idiots! Go to the gym!
Jacob, USA

I'm fat. Does that mean I should sue my wife? She does the weekly shopping so it must be her fault. It couldn't possibly be my fault for liking beer and chocolate could it?
Simon, UK

What a jolly good idea! I have currently started legal action against Mars Ltd - they wickedly led me to believe 'a Mars a day' would help me work, rest and play. To my horror, it just made me obese. A large compensation award might just make me feel better about my lack of intelligence and self-discipline.
Jon, UK

Fast food companies are socially irresponsible in targeting children

Richard, Denmark
Fast food companies are socially irresponsible in targeting children with their junk food to make huge profits. The legal logic is precisely the same as used against tobacco companies.
Richard, Denmark

Having lived in the US last year, I can say most of the comments here belittling this lawsuit stem from ignorance of life in the US. People here in the UK are MUCH more aware of what is healthy. In the US "Big Food" dominates the airwaves and the vast majority of people are genuinely misinformed. Americans live off processed food regularly now. Having said that, I think the lawsuit is partially misguided because bad food is no more than half the problem of obesity that is now coming to the fore in the US. The other half is the lifestyle the country imposes on people. In the US you are literally FORCED to drive everywhere - even a 5 minute hop to a local supermarket. People live in a system where they do everything sitting down. So it is not just that massive amounts of calories (with little nutrition) are readily and cheaply on offer, but that burning any of it off in the normal course of a day is near impossible.
James, UK

I always understood that the consumer makes 'an offer to buy' rather than the retailer making 'an offer to sell' a product - would this case change that aspect of law too, if successful ?
Nicky, UK

Half of all Americans are clinically obese. With all the unhealthy food around in American supermarkets, restaurants and burger chains, it's no wonder. But this is no reason to sue the fast food chains. Nobody forced these people to live sedentary lifestyles, never walking anywhere, eating rubbish, and I would have thought it was obvious that greasy foods aren't good for you. Education about the risks of such dangerous lifestyle choices is the only way to prevent America becoming the Land of the Fat.
Lyndsey, UK

This is about the most outrageous abuse of the litigation process.

Paul B, UK
This is about the most outrageous abuse of the litigation process. A level headed judiciary should summarily throw out such claims and lay all the costs at the door of the greedy lawyers that promote this sort of abuse of the law. Western law has gradually slithered down a slimy slope. Surely this is about as low as it can get - a profession whose reputation is in tatters.
Paul B, Oxfordshire, UK

This story may seem stupid on the surface but thousands of people die each year from obesity. Yes, we seem to know that fast food is bad for us. But what is disturbing is the amount of hidden sugar used in everyday product. Alternatives to sugar are available but still food manufacturers use sugar. The sugar lobby representing the interests of the big sugar producers use exactly the same tactics as the tobacco lobby to infiltrate research groups and rubbish research into the adverse affects of sugar. From recent items on the BBC - how many spoonfuls of sugar in a slice of Apple pie? - Six. What will our average waste size become over the next few years? - 42 inches (mine is already 44!!)
Derek N, England

It is stories like this which make me feel ashamed to be American at times. While millions around the world are literally starving to death, a select few actually have the audacity to not only blame "society" for their own gluttony, stupidity, and laziness but also in the process of chasing that extra buck chew up money and resources which could be doing so much good in the world.

Okay then. I going to sue the fat people for taking up more space, putting greater strain on the health service, and for being sweaty and smelly in public places a la second hand smoke.
Skinny, US

Many kids and teenagers who consume fast food have no idea about the unhealthy nature of the food.

Orhan Tsolak, UK
I think the fast food chains must be liable by law to put a warning in their food, just like the tobacco warnings. Many kids and teenagers who consume fast food have no idea about the unhealthy nature of the food. When I was a kid, I equated buying food from McDonald's and the like with being cool and middle class, thanks to their successful but very misleading advertising campaigns. Nowadays the majority of the people who go to fast food chains are the poor and the working class, people most likely to be unaware of the unhealthy food these chains sell and can't afford better food
Orhan Tsolak, UK

It is possible to look at this case, and to dismiss it as litigation gone mad. However, if you watch TV on any Saturday morning, you will find every commercial break shows at least one McDonalds advert. This is clearly a cynical attempt to get children to eat more McDonalds food, leading to potential eating disorders in later life. Whilst parents and adults should know better, perhaps the case isn't as clear cut as it first seems, and the chains are maybe not so innocent as they would have us believe.
Tony Bastin, Leeds,England

Although I think the lawsuit itself is a bit too much, I am glad that the focus is now on fast food restaurants. They should be more responsible and make a big effort in making their food healthier by cutting out all that terrible fat content. Surprisingly, there are many folk who are ignorant about the fat content in these meals, and if tinned food in supermarkets have to be labelled with the content of fat and calories, why shouldn't fast food? I feel the fast food industry is responsible for many heart attacks in this country.
Roseanne Singer, USA

Here we go again. As a Brit, who is also a lawyer, living in the US, I am amazed at how the US economy survives under the load of all these junk law suits. Someone mentioned personal responsibility - as far as the US legal system is concerned there is very little of that. Things are always someone else's fault. Idiocy is no defence.
Nigel Pond, USA (a Brit in exile)

Sue them for as much as possible

Tom, UK
Fast food chains have a catastrophic effect on health. They encourage greed by disgusting "all you can eat" offers. People eating nothing but fast food risk irreversible damage since the diet is very short on essential trace minerals, vitamins, and roughage. Moreover, they use only the cheapest ingredients, cooked in the most expedient way. Sue them for as much as possible, and stop giving them planning permission!
Tom, UK

They could eat healthily but choose not to. It's no secret that fast food retailers sell poor quality, fatty food. It is not marketed as health food.
Andy, UK

Anyone who doesn't know that burgers and chips have a high fat content is a bit dim. However fast food giants do make a lot of money, the least they should do is offer some low fat alternatives for people who have to eat on the run.
Neil, Wales

The food should come with explicit warnings

Wendy, UK
It's hard sympathise with someone so unfathomably stupid; however, fast food chains do actually put leaflets in their outlets detailing the nutritional value of their food. Like cigarettes, the food should come with explicit warnings about fat/calorie content and about heart disease. We can scoff but if this leads to the fast food giants being honest then it's a very good thing.
ps - The point with the hot coffee case was that when the coffee was spilt it was massively too hot for human consumption.
Wendy, UK

No-one can expect commercial organisations to tell their customers that what they are selling is rubbish and will ultimately shorten their lives. It's up to us to have to brains to work that out for ourselves. A concentrated programme of public health education might help but rubbish food can only be sold to people who want to eat it.
Ronnie Smith, Scotland

Fast food has become a staple of many people in the industrialised world. To define obesity as the fault of company is a denial of a problem which those individuals have with themselves. They just plan to rip off the company in the process, probably to buy more fast food.
Rudi Ball, South Africa

There is no case and this is another example of an over-litigious society. Personal responsibility (remember that?) has to come into such cases. The fat content alone is noticeable from the taste and the residue in the wrappers. Sure it tastes good but everyone knows the nutritional value of such food. Throw these cases out and please don't settle, they'll only spend the settlement on burgers which won't be good for them!
Jobecks, UK

Yes, some of us have become far too litigious. Suing a burger chain because you're fat is as daft as suing the brewery because you're drunk. People need to take charge of their lives: behave responsibly and stop trying to blame others for the consequences of their own stupidity.
Chris B, England

Perhaps crime doesn't pay but clearly a total lack of common sense does.
Nick, Amsterdam

This is another ridiculous example of people not taking the responsibility for their own actions

Jez, UK
This is another ridiculous example of people not taking the responsibility for their own actions. A man who has the intelligence to drive a lorry should be able to work out that what you eat and lifestyle has an impact on weight and health. Will he also be taking action against his employer who paid him his salary and therefore recklessly enabled him to purchase this food?
Jez, UK

I was not aware of the service that these fast food chains have in place which involves forcing their product down the throats of their customers. Surely with the information now available regarding which food is more healthy eating, these people only have themselves to blame. The US is becoming stupidly litigious.
Frances, England

Anyone who doesn't realise that fast food is bad for you must have their head buried in a greasy burger. I don't believe they should be allowed to sue the restaurants - this case is somewhat different to smokers suing cigarette companies as McDonalds (et al) have never stood up under oath to swear that fast food isn't bad for you.
John, England

Why do Americans always blame someone else for their failings? Is the 20-stone driver trying to change his eating habits? With America's stupid blame culture, and greedy lawyers he will, unfortunately be given a hearing in court. What a sad waste of resources and what a perfect way of clogging the arteries of a judicial system.
Jackie Worrow, England

I would suggest he donate the money to the relief agencies working in Southern Africa

Dale, UK
The beauty of living in a democratic society is that we have choices. With these choices, comes responsibility, something that the person suing the fast food chains has conveniently chosen to ignore. He CHOSE to eat the burgers, when he had a choice of eating healthier food instead and should take personal responsibility for his obesity. Unfortunately, the state and tax payer will probably take financial responsibility, but that's another issue. No doubt there is lawyer behind this lawsuit, just waiting to make a fast buck from a frivolous claim. If he does win, I would suggest he donate the money to the relief agencies working in Southern Africa and then start following a sensible diet with lots of exercise.
Dale, UK

This case is the nadir of ridiculous litigation. How can anyone claim that they thought fatty food was healthy? It clearly affects one's intellect too. It takes a long time to get that fat and a long time to develop diabetes; the plaintiff had plenty of time to chance his habits. I hope the case is thrown out of court - how many corpulent people are there in the US who could also claim?
Dan, Bristol, UK

It amazes me these people consider their ignorance is some sort of defence. It must be over 30 years that we have known eating fatty, salty and sweet food to excess are not good for one's health. This healthy eating idea is nothing new. The fast food industry sells a legitimate and legal product, they do not strap anyone in a chair and force feed them, the decision to buy and consume such foods is totally with the purchaser. The old saying comes to mind "buyer beware".
Jim Peters, Malaysia

McDonalds shouldn't serve fat people

Rocket Scientist, UK
Will supermarkets stop selling food in case someone chokes on their dinner? Will seaside resorts close in case someone drowns? Take responsibility for your own actions and stop pushing the blame onto others. Personally, I think McDonalds shouldn't serve fat people in the same way that publicans won't serve drunks.
Rocket Scientist, UK

I have mixed feelings about this. Part of me thinks that if you eat lard for two decades, it's a bit rich to sue the manufacturers for making you lardy. On the other hand, fast food chains sell nutritionally awful food and target kids, leading them into a life of obesity and ill health. Anything which forces them to come clean about the poor nutritional content of the muck they sell has to be a good thing.
Peter Moore, UK

Oh dear. I thought the hot coffee incident was bad enough. Hairdryers with warnings not to use in the shower, coffee labelled as hot, packets of peanuts with nut allergy warnings...
Anthony M, UK

See also:

25 Jul 02 | Americas
14 Apr 01 | Americas
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