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Judge Rejects Obese Teenagers' Suit Against McDonald's


A federal judge in Manhattan today threw out a lawsuit brought against the McDonald's Corporation by two obese teenagers, declaring as he did so that people are responsible for what they eat and that the teenagers' complaints could spawn thousands of "McLawsuits" if they were upheld.

"This opinion is guided by the principle that legal consequences should not attach to the consumption of hamburgers and other fast-food fare unless consumers are unaware of the dangers of eating such food," Judge Robert W. Sweet wrote.

In dismissing the suit, the judge said the plaintiffs had failed to show that McDonald's engaged in deceptive practices and that consumers had inadequate access to information about McDonald's products.

The ruling was good news for the fast-food chain, which has endured several months of disappointing earnings. McDonald's shares were up 5 cents in afternoon trading, at $15.39.

It was a defeat, though not a total one, for the teenagers, Jazlyn Bradley and Ashley Pelman, who had contended that they became obese while frequenting two McDonald's outlets in the Bronx.

At the time their suit was filed last fall, Ms. Bradley was 19, stood 5 foot 6 and weighed 270 pounds, and Ms. Pelman was 14, stood 4 foot 10 and weighed 170 pounds.

While the case has occasioned snickers in some quarters, it has been no laughing matter to McDonald's and thousands of other restaurant businesses. "It has gotten everyone's attention," Steven C. Anderson, president of the National Restaurant Association, said after the suit was filed.

Several other suits have been filed against McDonald's, though the one dismissed today had made it further into the court system than any other.

In their complaint, Ms. Bradley and Ms. Pelman asserted that McDonald's did not provide sufficient information about the health risks linked to its meals — accusations that the burger-and-fries titan forcefully denied and that the judge largely rejected.

At 80, Judge Sweet is old enough to recall a time when Golden Arches were not part of the American landscape. Nevertheless, he leavened his legal language with allusions drawn from the McDonald's culture and understandable to nonlawyers.

"Nobody is forced to eat at McDonald's," the judge declared. "Except, perhaps, parents of small children who desire McDonald's food, toy promotions or playgrounds and demand their parents' accompaniment."

"Chicken McNuggets," he wrote at one point, "are a McFrankenstein creation of various elements not utilized by the home cook."

At another point, Judge Sweet rejected the plaintiffs' argument that they had a valid claim against local McDonald's businesses. "Clearly, what is at issue in this lawsuit is the national menu and national policy," the judge found, "and the plaintiffs' real beef is with McDonald's Corporation."

McDonald's has maintained throughout that it makes good, nourishing food and provides nutritional information about it, including postings on its Web site.

"Common sense has prevailed," the corporation said in a statement today. "We said from the beginning that this was a frivolous lawsuit."

On the contrary, said Samuel Hirsch, the Manhattan lawyer who represents the plaintiffs. Mr. Hirsch noted that Judge Sweet said the two teenagers were not barred from filing an amended complaint, and Mr. Hirsch promised to do just that, asserting that he still had a "credible and viable lawsuit."

No matter what happens next, today's ruling is probably not the last word — not with more and more Americans losing the fight with the scale and spending some $110 billion a year on fast food.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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