A new lawsuit takes aim at beer and wine companies for not warning consumers that they could become alcoholics.Frivolous lawsuit? Or new trend that will let consumers collect millions from liquor companies?
The lawsuit seeks $1 billion from Miller Brewing, Anheuser-Busch, Coors and other major beer and wine makers for not adding warning labels on their bottles to tell people that alcohol is habit forming and addictive.
But here’s the kicker: the lawsuit was brought by five inmates in Idaho who claim that not only was the booze to blame for their alcoholism, but also for their criminal activity.
Keith Brown, who is serving a 15-year sentence for shooting a man to death, Jeremy Brown, who is doing a 20 to 30 years for shooting and injuring a man, and three other prisoners whose crimes range from manslaughter to grand theft, say in their legal complaint that “if they had not been addicted to the products sold by the defendants that they would have lead normal lives as productive members of society.”
While that claim is a stretch, the lawsuit’s main argument that alcohol should be sold with a warning label may have merit, according to Mark Gottlieb, a lawyer and executive director of the Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern Law School.
The complaint may also be a lesson on why you need a lawyer. The inmates filed the complaint on their own without an attorney, but in the hands of the right lawyer, this type of lawsuit could have legs.
“The complaint did not look particularly well-crafted or especially well-researched, but there may be something there,” said Gottlieb.
As in the early days when tobacco lawsuit were first launched, the idea of holding a maker of alcohol liable for a perfectly legal product seems far-fetched. But after decades of pursuing legal remedies, smokers have successfully sued for millions – sometimes billions – of dollars from cigarette manufacturers.
Like tobacco, the biggest challenge would be the argument that alcohol’s ill-effects are “common knowledge.” After all, everyone knows that alcohol gets you drunk and makes you do stupid things.
On the other hand, alcohol users could argue that while getting intoxicated is common knowledge, becoming addicted is not. If cases like this take root, it will probably take years – even decades – before they catch on.
“It will be a long road to success. Tobacco litigation took over 45 years before a plaintiff got paid in one of these actions,” Gottlieb said.
Or More Like a Fat, Juicy Burger?
The prisoners could also have taken a page from lawsuits filed against the fast food industry, which looked to consumer protection statutes. Those lawsuits argued that fast food companies like McDonalds, Burger King, and others engaged in deceptive marketing by advertising their food as nutritious or as 100% natural when in fact it contained unhealthy amounts of salt, fat and cholesterol and contained additives.
Rather than arguing that alcohol brewers made a dangerous product that lead to alcoholism and a life of crime, a drinker who suffers health effects from alcohol’s toxicity may have a stronger argument.
“There’s a medical connection between chronic alcohol abuse and personal injury such as cirrhosis of the liver,” said Gottlieb.
The Oglala Sioux tribe of South Dakota sued Anheuser Busch, Coors and Pabst alleging that the brewers and distributors sold alcohol near the reservation, where it is banned, profiting from chronic alcoholism and causing rampant health consequences.
In October, a judge ruled that the federal court did not have jurisdiction, saying it belonged in state court.
“There is, in fact, little question that alcohol sold [near the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation] contributes significantly to tragic conditions on the reservation,” U.S. District Judge John M. Gerrard wrote. “And it may well be that the defendants could, or should, do more to try to improve those conditions for members of the tribe.”
So even if the prisoners’ lawsuit gets thrown out, it’s probably not the last word on the issue.
“Even if these are ne’er do well prisoners looking for some way to make some money from alcohol beverage manufacturers, it raises some important legal questions about the addictive nature of these products and liability that have been neglected,” Gottlieb said.
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