HCFS Product Liability Lawsuit Fizzled Out

Individual in a Suit

Childhood Obesity News has been thinking about product liability issues, and has found some very informative reportage from the website Law360 concerning events of last year, when several food companies and the Corn Refiners Association were sued on behalf of a 14-year-old girl.

The lawsuit asked for $5 million in damages; the product in question was High Fructose Corn Syrup (HCFS). According to the plaintiff, HFCS is not a natural product, but rather a manufactured toxin. The plaintiff also claimed that HFCS is falsely advertised as not only natural, but safe.

The plaintiff’s contention was that if you eat enough HFCS, you get a metabolic syndrome because your liver begins resisting insulin, your blood glucose levels go up, and your body starts making more insulin. After a while, according to this logic, all you want to do is eat, resulting in a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes. In addition to making the product, the lawsuit argues, the manufacturers failed to warn the public of potential danger.

The manufacturers and Corn Refiners Association warned that suing them would “confuse consumers and mislead them about how to make the right choices for a healthy diet.” Sometimes when you hear something like this, it’s really hard not to do an eye-roll and drawl, “Oh, puh-leeeeze.”

As Megan Stride wrote on Law360:

The plaintiff’s attorney, J. Michael Hayes, told Law360 on Thursday that he believes the suit is the first such consumer product liability case to be filed against HFCS manufacturers over the sweetener’s alleged health effects.

Hopefully, it was not the last. But there is a strange twist that could have unintended negative consequences. Some food and beverage manufacturers have cut back on HFCS and returned to using cane sugar or beet sugar. (And as a smarty-pants kid of a past generation might have said, “Big whoop.” Sugar is one of the biggest poisons on the planet.)

The plaintiff brought up this fact as evidence that the companies know how bad HFCS is. This seems like an unhelpful wrinkle in legal logic. So now, the lawyers over at Big Food are justified in telling their clients, “Never discontinue a harmful ingredient or replace it with another, because some day the nanny state will use that against you in court.”

The best legal strategy is to throw the book at the bad guy and see what sticks. The charges here included “failure to warn; negligence; gross negligence; and willful, wanton and reckless conduct.”

Kat Greene covered the story’s denouement. A federal judge, opining that type 2 diabetes is multifactorial, would not hear the case. According to the judge, the plaintiff did not show a cause-and-effect relationship between the teenager’s diabetes and a lifetime of ingesting HFCS. Also, the notion of “market-share liability” did not impress the judge, and he would have preferred one defendant rather than a crowd.

The submitted paperwork did not persuade the judge that the product is unreasonably dangerous. Bottom line, the judge said that he was “not in a position to make findings of fact on the hotly debated health effects of sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.” But isn’t that what judges are for? To pull in experts and figure things out?

Apparently, the suit was dropped and damages are no longer being pursued.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “ADM, Others Sued Over Alleged Corn Syrup Health Dangers,” Law360.com, June 20, 2013
Source: “ADM, Cargill Escape $5M Suit Linking Corn Syrup To Diabetes,” Law360.com, April 21, 2014
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