Lawsuits Chipping Away At Food Choices

PETA front-man Neal Barnard deemed an expert witness in an obesity lawsuit? Litigation-happy John Banzhaf finding a single judge and jury who agrees with his argument that restaurants should be liable for their customers’ weight gain? Think it’s impossible? Think again. In March we told you about one of the top five ridiculous lawsuits of 2003 — courtesy of the legal reform group Common Good — where the Illinois Court of Appeals determined that parents could sue a Chinese restaurant for a hot tea burn, even though their child caused the burn by spinning a lazy Susan. Now Common Good has drawn our attention to a 9-year legal assault on Doritos, in which the chips were charged with being too darned hard.

Way back in 1995 a couple sued after Doritos chips supposedly caused eating-related injuries. They relied on “expert” testimony from a retired professor who insisted:

Doritos Tortillas Natural Cheese Flavored corn chips have several hidden-hazardous physical-strength and physical-shape properties which make them unreasonably dangerous. The majority of the chips are thick, hard, strong…[Doritos are] not fit for the purpose for which it was intended (safe consumption).

The good professor wouldn’t just make this stuff up, of course. He conducted scientific experiments — like measuring the time it took saliva to soften Doritos. How did he do it? According to court records, “Dr. Beroes used Doritos that he had wetted with saliva by holding them in his mouth for 15, seconds, 30 seconds, 45 seconds, and 60 seconds.”

It took five years, but eventually a judge dismissed the case, ruling that the professor’s “methodology smacked of a high school science fair project and did not bear any relationship to the reality of mastication… Beroes’ methodology was akin to ‘junk science.'” Case closed? Not so fast. The couple appealed, and in 2001 a Pennsylvania Superior Court overruled the original decision — insisting that putting a chip in your mouth for 15 seconds and seeing how soft it became was indeed the stuff of multi-million dollar rulings. Finally, on December 31, 2003, common sense won the day as the Supreme Court of Western Pennsylvania threw out the bogus case.

That this exercise got so far, took so long, and cost so much, is surely evidence enough that America’s Byzantine legal system is in desperate need of reform before Banzhaf and his fellow legal sharks cash in on our diets — and take away our favorite foods in the process.

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