Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Families Victimized in the Melamine Scandal: Will You Ever Be Heard? (Republish)

The NY Times reported that some family members related to the victims of the melamine scandal have filed a products liability class action lawsuit.

This latest lawsuit is intriguing in a number of ways, which will be discussed below:

A.  Plaintiffs Sued in the The Supreme People’s Court of China.

Despite repeated efforts to bring lawsuits in various local courts in China, Hubei Province, Henan Province, etc., plaintiffs have failed to be heard because those courts simply refused to accept the cases.  Due to political reasons and pressure, the courts did not want to take political and social “hot potatoes” into their own hands.  

Very recently, dairy companies, under the auspice of the China Dairy Product Association, offered to settle all claims, present and future, for a sum widely reported in China and abroad.  That effort, to a large degree, has failed because many victims and their families refused to be “bought” by the paltry amount offered in the settlement proposal.  Therefore, the families still actively seek redress through other channels, courts, petitions, and the media.  Of course, suing the perpetrators in the highest court of the land would be the ideal thing to do, but probably the last resort given the fact that other courts have shut their doors at plaintiffs’ face.

The legal question, naturally, is whether the Supreme People’s Court has proper subject matter jurisdiction.  In all lawsuits, this is the first order of business and probably one of the most important questions because a court without proper subject matter jurisdiction cannot adjudicate a case, period.  In this case, according to the Chinese Civil Procedure Law (and subsequent judicial opinions), the Supreme People’s Court can have jurisdiction and be the First Instance Court over matters of national significance, and over cases that it deems ripe and proper for adjudication by the Court.

In light of the procedural law as stated above, the inquiry is then whether the case in question is of “national significance” or if it is the type of case that the Court feels it can properly adjudicate.  I’d argue “yes” to both questions.  First, the scale of the tort was unprecedentedly large.  Melamine tainted milk has so far killed six children and sickened thousands, all over the country.  Victims are mostly children, from different family background, poor, rich, and middle class.  Second, tainted milk was sold all over the country, thus spreading the impact of tort liability all over the nation.  Third, products safety and liability, given their importance, are national issues, dogging manufacturers, distributors, and consumers across the nation.  In sum, the case at bar involves claims of national significance.  

Further, the Court should accept the case because of the large stake in question.  Social harmony is in jeopardy as a result of this massive scandal because of the number of people sickened.  It is the egregious tort committed by the defendants that breached social harmony, not  the resultant lawsuits that will allegedly harm social harmony.  Many victims have so far not been able to seek justice in a court since lower courts have, without exception, refused to accept these type of cases.  As the highest court of the People’s Republic of China, it is the time for the Court to step up and lead the way when the lower courts are directionless and victims have definitely suffered injuries that call for adjudication and redress.  

In addition, civil liability should be imposed in addition to criminal liability.  Some involved in the scandal have been held criminally liable for their intentional acts.  Even though criminal liability serves its purpose in addressing the wrongs committed, it is not complete and thorough justice for those hurt for no faults of their own.  Many suffered permanent losses, and many will continue to suffer in the future.  For their losses and damages, they should be compensated.  Such compensation, in addition to criminal liability, will work together to form a formidable deterrent for future tortious acts and/or omissions.

B.  Plaintiffs Filed a Class Action Lawsuit.

[check back later for updates.]

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