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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Cheeseburger in Paradise

February 25, 2011 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

State Representative Dean Urdahl (R-Grove City) regularly champions a public policy distraction: the cheeseburger bill. It shields restaurants from “frivolous obesity lawsuits.” Unlike most conservative policy distractions, such as voter ID cards, Urdahl’s bill always invokes an eye-rolling chuckle rather than weary dismissal. However entertaining the prospect, it’s still a distraction from the real policy challenges facing Minnesota. And on top of that, his bill is poor policy.

I like cheeseburgers. I particularly like the Blue Door Pub’s blue cheese stuffed “Blucy” burger. Add a pint of Surly Furious ale or maybe a Summit Porter and a basket of Cajun-spiced tater-tots and two things happen. First, I’m in heaven and, second, I’ve probably consumed two days worth of calories in a single sitting.

If I order four or five successive Blucys, my waiter will keep the burgers coming. By the end, I might be rolling around on the floor like a blood-bloated wood tick, moaning about my poor judgment but the Blucys won’t stop until I say stop. The beer, though, is a different deal. The bar has a legal obligation to cut me off.

Minnesota dram shop laws specifically detail liquor sellers’ duties. Anyone who sells alcoholic beverages, legally or otherwise, is covered. Given the well-known, well-documented consequences of intoxication, principally the threat to public safety, any bar selling more booze to a drunk customer is responsible for contributing to the consequences of the customer’s intoxication. We hold liquor sellers accountable for selling to drunks in the short-term but not for contributing to long-term alcoholism.

Delineating specific purveyor responsibility, as Urdahl’s cheeseburger liability language introduces, a restaurant might someday have the responsibility to cut me off from ordering a third or even a second burger. That’s not what Urdahl is after, mind you. He’s far more interested in, first, creating a public policy distraction and, second, using the power of government to protect businesses from the consequences of the business’ poor business decisions. But, once we head down this path, the outcome isn’t always clear.

Urdahl’s cheeseburger bill bans frivolous obesity lawsuits in Minnesota. Since no one has ever initiated an obesity lawsuit against a restaurant in Minnesota, I’m kind of confused. What public policy problem is State Rep. Urdahl addressing? This bill doesn’t create jobs, grow schools, rebuild roads, or expand affordable healthcare. It spends a great deal of legislative policymaking time and effort fixing a nonexistent problem. Because the legislature’s time is limited, that means the cheeseburger bill is quite literally pushing other, more pressing problems aside.

The cheeseburger bill is, however, a terrific example of the conservative obsession with “tort reform.” A tort is “a negligent or intentional civil wrong not arising out of a contract or statute.” It’s an act that causes injury but largely isn’t a criminal act. Auto accidents are good examples.

If I hit your car with my car because I’m talking on my cell phone, my criminal responsibility is probably an inattentive driving violation and fine. But, I’ve likely caused at least several thousand dollars of damages to your car. Even if you weren’t hurt, I’ve harmed you financially. That’s a tort. If I don’t fix your car or deny responsibility, you can sue me. Going to court, seeking justice, has been an Anglo-American legal lynchpin for a very long time.

Conservative tort reform advocates want to limit the amount of money that you can collect. They want to create economic barriers to litigation. The American Tort Reform Association describes itself as “the only national organization exclusively dedicated to reforming the civil justice system [and] working to bring greater fairness, predictability and efficiency to America's civil justice system.” ATRA isn’t on the injured consumer’s side. Nope, they represent large, concentrated financial interests seeking to minimize the injured party’s access to justice.

While conservative tort reformers like to present themselves as victims, they’re the opposite. They want to create laws protecting themselves from tort claims filed by actual victims. Tort reform isn’t really reform; it’s using the law to protect the harmers from the harmed.

The cheeseburger bill won’t help Minnesotans. It only distracts us from what really matters: strong schools, affordable healthcare, robust transportation infrastructure and job-creating economic development. Minnesota is facing very real problems, many created by conservative public policy. Instead of focusing on what’s best for Minnesotans, conservative policymakers are doing everything they can to do anything but that.

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