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04/09/03 . Gail Appleson . Reuters . USA
Judge Throws Out Obesity Suit Against McDonald's
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A federal judge on Thursday threw out a revised lawsuit against McDonald's Corp. that accused the world's biggest fast-food company of using misleading advertising to lure children into eating unhealthy foods that make them fat.
The ruling marks the second time U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet dismissed the case brought on behalf of two youngsters who blamed their obesity, diabetes and other health problems on Big Macs and Chicken McNuggets.
Sweet said the plaintiffs had not followed detailed instructions he gave when he first threw out the case and told the plaintiffs they could submit a new filing with information backing up their advertising allegations.
This time, he barred them from filing another version, quelling litigation fears the suit had sparked in the food industry, .
"The plaintiffs have made no explicit allegations that they witnessed any particular deceptive advertisement and they have not provided McDonald's with enough information to determine whether its products are the cause of the alleged injuries," Sweet said.
"Finally, the one advertisement which plaintiffs implicitly allege to have caused their injuries is objectively nondeceptive," he said.
The suit had raised fears in the food industry of a new wave of tobacco-like litigation against restaurants and manufacturers. Anti-tobacco lawyers attended a seminar during the spring in Boston focusing on the possibility of bringing more suits over fattening foods.
Indeed, when the judge threw out the first case in January, he left the door open to further litigation. In that ruling he referred to Chicken McNuggets as a "McFrankenstein creation" made of elements not used in home cooking.
Lisa Howard, a McDonald's spokeswoman, said the company was extremely pleased that the judge had now totally dismissed thecase.
"It is a total victory for common sense. The court has closed the books once and for all on this meritless case," she said. "As we've said all along, our menu can absolutely be part of a healthy balanced lifestyle."
At least one Wall Street analyst said the lawsuit's dismissal would probably not provide much of a boost to the hamburger chain's stock price.
"The obesity lawsuits have very little implication for the stock because the industry hasn't been demonized enough by the plaintiffs' lawyers for investors to care," said Howard Penney, restaurant analyst with SunTrust Robinson Humphrey.
Shares of McDonald's, which on Thursday said August sales improved in the United States and Europe, rose 70 cents to close at $23.39 in New York Stock Exchange (news - web sites) trading.
Sweet had said in January the plaintiffs could amend the suit with information backing their claim that diners have no idea what is really in their food or that the products have allegedly become more harmful because of processing.
Although the plaintiffs' lawyer initially refiled the suit with the allegation that consumers were unaware of the health hazards of processed food, he dropped the claim in June.
The new filing, and Sweet's decision, thus focused primarily on deceptive advertising claims. But Sweet's decision also precludes plaintiffs from developing the case surrounding the harmfulness of processed foods in the future.
The judge said he had warned the plaintiffs that they must make specific allegations about particular advertisements that could have caused their injuries and to give details about the connection between those injuries and eating McDonald's foods.
"They have failed to remedy the defects of the initial complaint in the face of those warnings," Sweet said.
The two plaintiffs in the case, which sought class action status, were born in 1984 and 1988. McDonald's lawyers had argued that the plaintiffs were too young to have seen or be affected by the 1987 print ads attached as exhibits in the suit. Samuel Hirsch, the plaintiff's lawyer, could not be reached for comment. (With additional reporting by Lauren Weber and Deborah Cohen)