Chinese Parents File Milk Lawsuit

(Wall Street Journal)

By Sky Canaves and Juliet Ye


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, China, makes copies of test reports available to customers to verify that dairy products are free of melamine contamination.


China's 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 Wen Jiabao said the government would fix the domestic dairy industry.


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, he added.


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. 10-1-08




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