John Banzhaf
Key Player

Obesity trial lawyer; Professor, Georgetown University Law CenterJohn F. Banzhaf III is leading the charge to sue food companies for their customers’ choices. For Banzhaf and his trial-lawyer allies, “big food” is the next tobacco-style cash cow, ripe for the multi-billion-dollar picking.

Banzhaf has never met a lawsuit he didn’t like. A George Washington University law professor, Banzhaf brags that his signature class is nicknamed “Suing for Credit” (and, by some, “Sue the Bastards 101”). That’s clearly Banzhaf’s passion: his vanity license plate reads “SUE BAST.”

Banzhaf was one of the first trial lawyers to propose health-related litigation against tobacco companies. As executive director of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), Banzhaf pays himself over $200,000 per year in salary and benefits. That’s in addition to his professor’s salary. While he claims he “won’t see a dime” from food lawsuits, he said the same about tobacco torts many years ago. ASH sells tobacco “lawsuit kits” for $25 each.

While he’s still collecting hefty checks from ASH, Banzhaf now receives more attention for his frivolous scheme to bleed restaurants dry. First attacking fast-food in July 2002, Banzhaf served as an adviser to a lawsuit filed by New York attorney Samuel Hirsch on behalf of Caesar Barber — a morbidly obese man whose health suffered because of his poor diet and lack of exercise. Barber’s suit claimed McDonald’s was to blame because he ate too much.

After the Barber suit was laughed out of the court of public opinion, Hirsch and Banzhaf went back to the drawing board for their second multi-billion-dollar fishing expedition. This one used children as the bait. The trial judge dismissed the case, writing: “If a person knows or should know that eating copious orders of super-sized McDonald’s products is unhealthy and may result in weight gain, it is not the place of the law to protect them from their own excesses.”

Banzhaf has lost every obesity-related case he’s been involved in, but that hasn’t stopped him from falsely claiming “victory.” In order to mislead the public into thinking obesity lawsuits are sensible and mainstream, he’s bragged about several so-called “wins” in these cases. One of his self-proclaimed “victories” (over mislabeled ice cream containers in Florida) resulted in customers being offered two free desserts for every one they had purchased. In another case, brought against McDonald’s for not listing beef tallow as a French-fry ingredient, Banzhaf himself admitted that it wasn’t really an obesity suit: “Now, notice,” he told a 2003 food policy conference in Washington, DC, “This is not, first of all, an obesity case. I mean, this wasn’t the problem. We couldn’t prove that anybody got fat, or that anybody got sick.” His other obesity “victories” are just as flimsy.

Banzhaf threatens so many obesity-related lawsuits against food companies that it can be hard to keep track. In June 2003 he sent letters to six fast-food chains demanding that they display “warning” notices about the allegedly “addictive” nature of fatty foods. He even claimed that fast food “can act on the brain the same way as nicotine or heroin.” One month later, Banzhaf teamed up with the Center for Science in the Public Interest to warn six ice cream chains that lawsuits could result from their refusal to immediately “list the calorie (and, ideally, saturated fat) content of each item” on their menus and menu boards.

He even threatened to sue the Seattle School Board — and individual school board members — for making soft drinks available to teenagers in school. Banzhaf has also discussed going after milk producers because the famous “Got Milk?” ads don’t mention the benefits of skim milk. Just as cream rises to the top, John Banzhaf can always be counted on to sink as low as possible.