Image: Chinese baby
AP file
Zhou Yunxiao, a 14-month-old boy, is treated after drinking tainted milk powder at a hospital in Chengdu, China. Lawyers are planning a class-action suit to pressure the government on compensation for the affected families.
updated 11/13/2008 3:09:57 PM ET 2008-11-13T20:09:57

Lawyers for dozens of families whose children were sickened by tainted milk decided Thursday to go ahead with a class-action lawsuit against a dairy, hoping to pressure Chinese authorities still dithering over compensation.

After weeks of discussions, the 15 lawyers decided to bundle cases involving nearly 100 families into a single lawsuit against state-owned Shijiazhuang Sanlu Group Co., the dairy at the center of China’s worst food safety crisis in years.

The lawsuit seeks medical and other expenses, payments for trauma and compensation for the families of those who died.

“The victims have suffered and they deserve to be compensated,” Beijing-based lawyer Xu Zhiyong said.

Going ahead with the lawsuit marks a significant uptick in confrontation between the families and the authoritarian government in a scandal that Beijing has tried to keep out of the public eye in recent weeks.

The lawsuit threatens to expose government mishandling of a case that again has tarnished the reputation of China’s food products abroad.

Food detained
On Thursday, U.S. food safety officials said dozens of imported foods from China made with milk will be held at ports until tests show they are free of the industrial chemical at the center of the scandal.

The melamine contamination was first reported in September. More than 54,000 children, mostly infants, fell sick and at least three died by official count from drinking tainted infant formula, powdered milk and dairy products. Melamine was believed to have been added to artificially boost nitrogen levels, making products seem higher in protein when tested.

Beijing has shied away from addressing any government responsibility and has said Sanlu has promised unspecified compensation. Reporters and lawyers say authorities have pressured them to stay away from the issue.

The lawyers have been assisting the families for months and they agreed Thursday to move ahead with the lawsuit, planning to file it at the Hebei High People’s Court in Shijiazhuang, the northern city where the dairy is based, Xu said.

Slideshow: Get a taste of food safety The lawyers postponed setting a date to file the lawsuit until after they hold talks with the company, Xu said.

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Xu and other lawyers involved said a group lawsuit would reduce costs for their clients and set a benchmark for compensation. But they also hope the large number of plaintiffs will force a settlement, they said.

“In this case, there are numerous victims. If everyone goes in for a lawsuit, it will be a real waste of legal resources,” said Zhang Xinkui, another Beijing-based lawyer involved in the suit. “The government ought to find a more humanitarian way.”

Not all costs covered
China’s Cabinet ordered hospitals to provide free treatment for sick infants, but the lawyers and families say not all costs were covered. The Health Ministry has yet to announce details of a compensation plan and refuses to answer questions about it.

At least a dozen individual cases have been filed against Sanlu, but are caught in a legal limbo.

Courts have neither accepted nor refused the cases — a sign of the scandal’s political sensitivity and an apparent violation of regulations that say decisions must be made within 10 days of a lawsuit being submitted.

Chinese civil law says a collective lawsuit may be filed when there are at least two plaintiffs with a common complaint against the same defendant. Such lawsuits differ from U.S. class-action suits in that Chinese courts require the express consent of each plaintiff.

Residents in Shanghai have won compensation from an airline for property damage caused by a plane crash, while farmers in Beijing have sued their village committee over a land dispute.

In practice, however, courts often turn down group suits, preferring to deal with cases one-by-one to look more productive and avoid running afoul of Communist Party officials, who ultimately control the judiciary.

“The major concern of the government in not accepting these mass plaintiff cases is that people tend to then get all excited and then take to the streets and protest if it doesn’t seem to be going their way,” said Randy Peerenboom, a law professor at the La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.

In the tainted milk case, it is not clear how Sanlu would settle the claims.

A majority state-owned company, Sanlu was considered a national champion, and other companies have expressed interest in scooping up its assets. New Zealand’s Fonterra Group dairy holds a 43 percent stake in Sanlu.

Xu, the lawyer, said the lawsuit would demand Sanlu pay three times the basic expenses incurred by the victims’ families and to award extra payments to clients whose babies died or are suffering serious illnesses, as well as damages for trauma.

The additional payments would serve to penalize Sanlu, Xu said, and warn other businesses against irresponsible practices.

“This should be seen as a warning that all businesses should not produce toxic food products that harm people,” Xu said.

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