Legal News

China’s Courts And Tainted Milk. Never The Twain Shall Meet?

China class actions

This New York Times article does as good a job of any at setting out the issues China is facing in deciding whether to allow milk taint victims to pursue their claims in court. The article is, somewhat wrongly entitled, Courts Compound Pain of China’s Tainted Milk.

The article does a nice job dealing with the issues of whether China’s courts are set up for these sorts of mass tort cases and also whether the rejection/acceptance of such lawsuits is being driven from Beijing or locally.

I would think most Western lawyers would agree China eventually needs a system that can handle class action torts (or just mass tort cases), but the much tougher question is what it should do in the meantime.

One response to “China’s Courts And Tainted Milk. Never The Twain Shall Meet?”

  1. Errr . . . Dan, a good number of countries don’t have mass or class action torts, Switzerland being a prime example. There’s also good reasons why a country with a population the size of China’s might not wish to allow such actions – not least the difficulty of verifying membership of the class in question, the vast sums involved being used as a form of ‘legal blackmail’ etc.
    Here in the UK there is no limit of the number of people who may join an action, the record is in excess of 50,000 claimants, but the level of organisation required to bring this about is rare. Since 2000 we have operated an opt-in group litigation system under what are called Group Litigation Orders (GLOs), where the court will make a GLO setting a deadline for joining the action and advertise that this action is taking place – a list of these can be found on the HM courts services website. However, these haven’t seen a lot of use – only 65 have been made so far. Another way of doing things has been sample or representative cases, where one party or a portion of the parties brings a case that is representative of a wider group – this is common in competition law cases. Despite this absence of class action or mass torts in large parts of the EU, Europe has not descended into a Dickensian nightmare of manufacturers exploiting consumers – regulatory checks and balances have seen to this.
    Really, for a mass or class action tort system to see wide use among claimants requires a similar legal environment to that found in the US (e.g., punitive damages, contingency fees, jury trial of complex tort cases etc.). Even were the Chinese government to legislate for this, China simply does not now and is unlikely to have in the future the kind of legal environment that allows this kind of thing. A much faster, better, cheaper, efficient, and more logical way of solving the immediate problems represented by the Sanlu milk scandal is likely to be found through a reform of the regulatory system – something which neither class actions nor the shooting of a few scape-goats can bring about.

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