N E W Y O R K, July 26, 2002 -- An overweight Bronx man wants four famous fast food chains to pay for serving him the finger-licking food that helped make him fat.
Caesar Barber, 56, a maintenance worker who weighs about 270 pounds and stands 5-foot-10, claims McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and KFC jeopardized his health with their greasy, salty fare. He filed a class action lawsuit on Wednesday in the New York State Supreme Court in the Bronx on behalf of an unspecified number of other obese and ill New Yorkers who also feast on fast food.
Barber's lawsuit is the first broad-based action taken against the fast food industry for allegedly contributing to obesity. He claims the fast food restaurants, where Barber says he used to eat four or five times a week even after suffering a heart attack, did not properly disclose the ingredients of their food and the risks of eating too much.
"They never explained to me what I was eating," Barber said on ABC's Good Morning America.
His lawyer, Samuel Hirsch, said the multibillion-dollar fast food industry has an obligation to warn consumers of the dangers of eating from their menus. "It's a question of informing the consumers," he said. "[The companies] profited enormously."
The fast food chains were negligent in selling food high in fat, salt, sugar, and cholesterol content, the lawsuit claims, despite studies showing a link between consuming such foods and obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, strokes, elevated cholesterol intake, related cancers, and other health problems.
As a result of the fast food companies' actions, Barber suffered injuries — he has had two heart attacks and is diabetic — and is entitled to unspecified damages at a jury trial, the complaint reads.
A food industry spokesman says he is surprised Hirsch can make his legal argument with a straight face.
"He must be aware that fully two-thirds of all foods consumed in America are consumed in people's homes. Is he proposing that we sue America's moms?" said John Doyle, co-founder of Center for Consumer Freedom, a restaurant industry group.
More troubling is the implication the lawsuit makes about the abilities of Americans to choose what they eat, Doyle said. "To win his suit he has to convince a jury or a judge that people are too stupid to feed themselves or their children. If people are so stupid, should they be allowed to vote or go to work in the morning?"
Fast Food on the Run?
Still, nutrition advocates and some doctors' groups insist that the food industry, which spends billions of dollars each year on advertising for junk foods and sugary drinks, should at least share some blame for the creeping problem of obesity.
The U.S. surgeon general said in a report last December that obesity kills an estimated 300,000 Americans each year and costs $117 billion in health-related costs.
Lawyers have been working on strategies to hold the food industry at least partly responsible for obesity, just as plaintiff's attorneys have successfully sued tobacco companies for smoking-related illnesses.
"This lawsuit has the potential to put the fast food companies on the run," said John Banzhaf, a professor at George Washington University Law School, who has worked on tobacco litigation and will serve as an adviser to Barber.
There have been at least three previous, narrower lawsuits alleging negligent or misleading practices in the food industry.
McDonald's just settled a $12 million lawsuit and apologized for wrongly describing its French fries as vegetarian. A similar lawsuit was filed against Pizza Hut for allegedly using beef fat in its Veggie Lovers' Pizza.
Another class action law suit claims that the makers of the corn and rice puff snack food "Pirates' Booty" under-represented its fat content by more than 340 percent.
A Hard Sell
But Barber's lawsuit is the first known legal action to claim that the fast food industry has contributed knowingly to the problem of obesity in America.
"This is no doubt just the first of many lawsuits holding the food industry at least partially to blame for America's diet-related epidemics," Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine president and nutrition researcher Neal D. Barnard said in a statement.
Even Banzhaf, who has led the charge against the food industry so far, realizes the high hurdle he and plaintiffs such as Barber face in convincing a jury, and the general public, that fat is the fault of corporate America.
"We know from the tobacco litigation that initial suits have real difficulties because the public has real problems accepting new ideas and new concepts," he said. "It took us many years to get us to the point of educating juries about tobacco, so now they are. [Barber's suit] has a great deal of potential."
For its part, McDonald's released a statement calling Barber's lawsuit frivolous.
"Common sense tells you that it makes no sense. McDonald's serves quality food. Our menu features choice and variety with lots of options for consumers," reads the statement.
Comprehensive nutritional information is available at the fast food restaurants and on the company's Web site, the statement read.