HONG KONG -- The parents of a 1-year-old boy allegedly
sickened by tainted milk powder filed a lawsuit against the manufacturer,
according to state media, in what appears to be the first challenge to official
efforts to keep the scandal out of China's courts.
A market in Nanjing,
copies of test reports available to customers to verify that dairy products are
free of melamine contamination.
official media and the family's lawyers said the suit, filed in a court in China's central Henan province, was the first filed in
relation to illness caused by milk tainted with the industrial chemical
melamine. The suit was filed last week against dairy company Shijiazhuang Sanlu Group Co., but has yet to be accepted by the court.
As is common in China,
the filing isn't publicly available.
Sanlu's officials couldn't be
reached for comment. China's
companies and government offices are closed this week for a holiday. On
Tuesday, a message on Sanlu's Web site said the site
had been temporarily shut down due to overwhelming user traffic.
The family's attorneys, Zhang Xingkuan
and Ji Cheng of Beijing's
Deheng Law Office, declined to disclose the names of
their clients. Mr. Zhang said they are seeking compensation of 150,000 yuan ($21,900) to cover hospital fees, travel expenses,
time off from work and other costs. The attorney said that the parents claim
the boy developed kidney stones from drinking Sanlu,
and that they had more than 90 empty bags of Sanlu
milk powder their son had consumed as proof.
On Sept. 13, Chinese authorities promised free treatment to
all children sickened by tainted dairy products, although detailed guidelines
on eligibility for treatment haven't been made public. Some hospitals have
narrowly interpreted the obligation to provide care at no cost.
For parents such as Mr. Zhang's clients, who have been
paying out-of-pocket for their son's medical care since June, the government's
promises haven't helped, said Mr. Zhang. He said the family was instructed by
the Beijing hospital where their son was
transferred to seek reimbursement back home in Henan.
The Chinese government has been struggling to contain the
scandal over the contamination of dairy products, which has led to the deaths
of as many as four children in China
and sickened more than 54,000. On Sunday, Prime Minister WenJiabao said the government would fix the domestic
Product liability suits are increasing in China's
developing legal system as Chinese become aware of their legal rights in
pursuing cases. Suits in China
tend to be much more abbreviated than in the U.S, said Howard Chao, the head of
the Asia practice at O'Melveny & Myers
LLP. Most suits get to trial in less than a year, and the judge is the
principal fact finder, said Mr. Chao. "Judgments are typically much
smaller" in China,
Because courts aren't independent of the government,
officials often take a direct role in dealing with victims in high-profile
incidents. In the aftermath of May's Sichuan
earthquake, the parents of children who died in collapsed schools were
dissuaded from turning to courts while the government conducted investigations.
The Sanlu lawsuit comes as some
lawyers who offered to assist families of sickened children report being
pressured to stay away from the issue. Beijing
lawyer Li Fangping, who organized a group of over 120
volunteer lawyers around China
to provide free legal advice to families affected by tainted milk, said he has
received numerous calls from lawyers in the volunteer network who said they are
facing pressure from local officials to refrain from getting involved.
"The situation has been very critical," said Mr.
Li, "especially in Henan
province." Mr. Li said he was summoned by Beijing judicial authorities on Monday to
discuss his work and was instructed to await their reply on how to proceed.
The All China Lawyers Association, the official
bar association that acts as an intermediary between its members and the
government, couldn't be reached for comment.
Mr. Zhang said he isn't involved with the volunteers and
hasn't been told to drop the case against Sanlu.
"My partner and I will continue working with the parents," he said.
On Tuesday, more products with Chinese-made ingredients were
recalled outside of mainland China.
Unilever Hong Kong Ltd, a subsidiary of the Anglo-Dutch consumer-products giant
Unilever, said it would recall four batches of Lipton milk tea powder sold in
Hong Kong and Macau after its tests found melamine in the products. A Unilever
spokesman said the scope of the recall was "relatively contained."
Hong Kong authorities also
said they found tainted Pocky Men's
coffee-cream-coated biscuit sticks made by Ezaki Glico Co. of Japan, and
tainted coconut and walnut cakes from Tian Le Yuan
Foods Co. of China.
South Korean health authorities said they found melamine in
Ritz cheese sandwich crackers made by Nabisco. A spokesman for Kraft Foods
Inc., which owns Nabisco, said the crackers were made in China and sold only in South Korea.