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Damage limits in food safety lawsuits upheld

By CAO YIN | China Daily | Updated: 2023-12-04 09:36


The Supreme People's Court has thrown its weight behind consumers in supporting their legitimate food safety rights, but it said the support comes with a few specific limitations.

The top court made the remarks on Thursday last week in the wake of a rise of a controversial phenomenon in China, where some consumers knowingly purchase food that does not meet safety standards and subsequently sue the food producers or sellers, to inflate their compensation.

According to the Food Safety Law, consumers are allowed to initiate lawsuits to demand compensation from food producers or sellers, along with punitive damages, if it is discovered that the food they bought does not meet safety standards. The punitive damages can be up to 10 times the purchase price of the food.

Xie Yong, a judge from the top court's No 1 Civil Adjudication Tribunal, said that the root of such lawsuits lies in the production and sale of food that does not meet safety standards, so it is justifiable for courts to crack down on the behavior.

However, Xie said that the courts have also discovered that some consumers are exploiting the provision in the law to buy goods in quantities that far exceed their actual consumption needs so that they could ask for larger amounts of punitive damages by litigation.

"Their demands in such a situation should not be supported by courts," Xie added.

In a case disclosed by the top court on Thursday, a consumer surnamed Sha bought 30 boxes of cookies online and found that the food did not meet safety standards after receiving them. Instead of turning to the court immediately, Sha bought an additional 200 boxes over the next two months and then initiated a lawsuit against the food seller.

In addition to asking the seller to return the payment of 4,176 yuan ($585), Sha also demanded punitive damages of 41,760 yuan.

After a trial, the court supported offering compensation and punitive damages to Sha for the first 30 boxes of the cookies purchased because the number of boxes met the plaintiff's reasonable consumption needs.

However, the court did not support Sha's claim for a refund and punitive damages for the other 200 boxes purchased, stating that those boxes far exceeded normal consumption needs.

"The ruling not only protected food safety but also maintained the market order for food production and operation," Xie said.

Discussing punitive damages as a measure to resolve food problems, Xie added that Chinese judges will also continue to work with prosecutors and government officials to guarantee food safety through public-interest litigation as well as administrative and criminal punishments.

Data released by the top court on Thursday showed that Chinese judicial authorities dealt with over 45,000 criminal cases related to the production and sale of food that did not meet safety standards or were even toxic or harmful from 2013 to 2022, during which more than 62,000 people were charged with related crimes.

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