There’s nothing new about lawyers attempting to profit from tragedy. When an individual dies after behaving irresponsibly, an attorney always can be found to blame someone with deep pockets. But now many lawyers are as interested in regulating behavior as in making money.
So it is with a raft of lawsuits against alcohol producers for having the temerity to advertise their products. After all, some people drink foolishly and illegally. Some have accidents, and die.
The state tobacco suits were the mother of abusive litigation. As important as money damages were provisions banning advertising, ending sports sponsorships, and killing industry research.
Lawsuits have since proliferated against fast food operators. So far, the cases have been faring poorly, but some attorneys have promised to keep suing until they win. Here again, nanny-state activists are looking for greedy public officials to work with them to regulate a legal industry outside of the normal political process.
Now lawyers have filed actions in California, Colorado, North Carolina, Ohio, and Washington, D.C. targeting the alcohol industry. The plaintiffs demand both monetary damages and advertising restrictions. The suits “wholeheartedly” borrow from the tobacco litigation, admits lawyer Steve Berman, handling a Los Angeles case.
Leading the legal assault are David Boies II, a top litigator hired by the Clinton Justice Department to sue Microsoft, and his son, who heads a separate law firm. Their target list includes Bacardi, Brown-Forman, Coors, Diageo, Heineken, Kobrand Corporation, and Mark Anthony Group, as well as the Beer Institute.
Interestingly, the attorneys left off their hit list Anheuser-Busch and Miller, clients of the elder Boies. Steve Berman remedied that lapse in his suit. Eventually even more companies could be hauled into court.
The plaintiffs claim that alcohol brewers and distillers are “deliberately and recklessly” targeting underage consumers by advertising in publications “disproportionately read” by young people. Reliance on cartoon characters, use of such youthful themes as video games, reference to college activities such as Spring Break, placement of products in movies and TV shows watched by minors, introduction of sexual imagery appealing to young males, and creation of websites accessible to teens are supposed to prove that the alcohol producers are attempting to hook the young.
But advertising is not enough. The plaintiffs assume that advertising is spurring underage drinking. “This is extremely sophisticated marketing that’s making an awful lot of money,” argues David Boies III, a lawyer hoping to make an awful lot of money with his lawsuit.
His Washington, D.C. complaint charges 17 defendants with having allegedly engaged in “wrongful, unjust, and illegal conduct.” The pleadings explain: “a company commits an unfair, deceptive, unconscionable, and unlawful trade practice when it deliberately engages in sophisticated and extensive marketing practices with the purpose and effect of substantially increasing the illegal sales of its dangerous products to children.”
Along with these class action suits are individual cases, such as the one filed by the family of 19-year-old Ryan Pisco against Coors. Pisco drank, drove while drunk, and recklessly exceeded the speed limit. He crashed and died.
Which, his family claimed, was Coors’ fault because of its sponsorship of sporting events which Ryan allegedly attended.
These lawsuits are a gross misuse of the judicial process. First, alcohol is not inherently dangerous. Millions of people, including most youths, drink without undue effect. The problem is drinking irresponsibly and sometimes illegally, not drinking.
But foolish behavior cannot be blamed on advertising. For instance, Ryan Pisco’s death is tragic, but he did not decide to break the law and drive dangerously because of industry advertising. He exercised his free choice — irresponsibly, unfortunately.
Moreover, advertising does little to change the level of drinking. Most alcohol consumed around the world isn’t even advertised.
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