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What China's tainted milk may not bring: lawsuits

The government is giving families free care but may ban legal action over contaminated formula, which has affected more than 50,000 babies.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 23, 2008


Li Fangping, a prominent human rights lawyer, is busy organizing victims of the poisoned infant formula scandal rocking China and offering pro bono help. But he is not planning to sue Sanlu, the formula manufacturer – not yet.

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A case that in the United States would attract swarms of lawyers eyeing the prospect of millions of dollars in damages is primarily a political, not legal, issue in China.

For reasons to do with China’s still-developing law and its authoritarian political system, lawyers are treading carefully around the Sanlu incident, in which four babies have died and nearly 53,000 suffered kidney problems after drinking adulterated powdered milk.

The government is seeking to forestall legal repercussions by pledging free medical care for all babies affected by the tainted milk. Mr. Li is holding his fire until he sees how fully that pledge is kept.

"We are still waiting to see how the government's compensation policy works," he says. "If consumers accept it there will be no need for a lawsuit" against Sanlu.

"Going to court is not the most obvious thing to do in China" to seek remedy, says Jerry Cohen, a top US scholar of Chinese law and professor at New York University.

Instead, Li and more than 70 other lawyers offering their help gratis are concentrating on cases where hospitals are not abiding by the Health Ministry's public promise that treatment will be free. They are advising the parents of victims about the practicalities of claiming compensation from the government for the expenses they incur in treating their babies.

More than 1,000 parents have called Li and his colleagues, he says, complaining that hospitals around the country are charging to treat babies whose milk-induced kidney stones are below a certain size, or offering only a free scan but not free treatment, or denying babies treatment unless parents pay for a bed.

The central government has promised to pay all the medical costs arising from the scandal, the extent of which is still being discovered: On Sunday a Hong Kong hospital reported the first case outside mainland China of a child found with kidney stones after drinking tainted milk.

But it is unclear whether the authorities intend to reclaim the money they spend from Sanlu. For the time being, Sanlu and 21 other companies whose baby formula was found to include the toxic chemical melamine are offering victims no more than reimbursement for the money they spent on their poisoned product.