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Product Liability Law

Forbes Editor Champions Tort Plaintiffs Lawyers

Posted Apr 24, 2009 3:57 PM CDT
By Sarah Mui

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Editor William Baldwin calls attention to an epidemic in a commentary piece in the May issue of Forbes: foodborne illness. It “sickens 76 million Americans a year, kills 5,000 and runs up $3 billion in hospital costs,” he writes.

But his rallying cry isn’t for more federal regulation—it’s for more plaintiffs lawyers. Hear him out. “The tort bar has not, on the whole, covered itself with glory,” he wrote. “A large fraction of asbestos cases, for instance, are based on quack readings of X-rays.”

In food-poisoning litigation, however, genetic subtyping can make an unmistakable link from food to victim. “The lawyer's main task is to argue over how much the kid's life is worth.”

He points to the success of Seattle plaintiffs lawyer William Marler, saying that, aside from the high cost to food vendors of adverse judgments, Marler’s promotions of his efforts call attention to these adverse rulings and keep food vendors on their toes.

“If it's expensive to make mistakes, more money will go into the detection and prevention of microbes,” Baldwin writes. “Entrepreneurs will find opportunity here.”

Marler told the ABA Journal that at a regulatory level, at least, he has seen "pretty dramatic" changes in food safety practices since his career-launching 1990s verdict against Jack in the Box over undercooked hamburgers that were the source of an E. coli outbreak. in Washington state. For example, in response to that particular case, the Food and Drug Administration guideline for the internal cooking temperature of hamburgers was raised from 140 degrees to 155 degrees (and later 160 degrees). "It doesn't sound like a big deal, but for a fast-food restaurant, it's an enormous deal."

Updated at 5:52 p.m. to include comment from William Marler.

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