Chinese Courts Accept Tainted Milk Suits

Hundreds of families affected by a tainted milk scandal plan to file lawsuits against the dairy companies involved after a top justice official said courts will accept the cases.

BEIJING (AP) -- For months, courts across China refused to accept the lawsuits from families whose children were killed or sickened in a tainted milk scandal. Now, in a turnaround, hundreds of families are planning to file suit after the country's highest court this week said cases would be accepted.

The move signals a change in the way Beijing is handling fallout from the scandal, which killed at least six babies and sickened nearly 300,000 with kidney stones and kidney failure. A government-sanctioned compensation plan had been expected to ease public anger, but instead it gave embittered, outspoken parents across China a common cause.

"There will be lawsuits against all 22 dairy companies," said Zhao Lianhai, who has rallied victims' parents through a Web site he created.

He said Tuesday the 600-plus families involved want compensation for emotional harm as well as medical and other expenses -- demands that go beyond the government's one-time payouts.

But it was not clear how the government planned to handle the cases. One lawyer who filed a lawsuit this week on behalf of dozens of families said he was told the court was supposed to guide him toward the existing compensation plan.

Infant formula contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine was blamed in the scandal that was exposed last September. Unscrupulous middlemen are accused of adding melamine, which is high in nitrogen, to watered-down milk to fool quality tests for protein content.

The crisis highlighted the need for major overhauls to China's food safety system, culminating in a law passed over the weekend that consolidates hundreds of regulations covering the country's 500,000 food processing companies.

On Monday, Shen Deyong, executive vice president of China's highest court, said courts will accept compensation cases in the scandal.

"The courts have done the preparation work and will accept the compensation cases at any time, " Shen said in an online interview with the official People's Daily Newspaper.

Already, Beijing attorney Li Jinglin said he filed an 8 million yuan ($1.2 million) lawsuit Monday in northern China's Qingdao Intermediate People's Court on behalf of 54 families. Their children became sick after drinking Shengyuan brand milk, whose parent company is based in Qingdao.

Li said he expected a response from the court this week. But he said a court official told him: "We have the responsibility of guiding you toward accepting the compensation plan from the companies involved ... According to our situation, we are prepared to give the same amount of compensation as the dairies."

A man in the propaganda department at the Qingdao court said he was not aware of the case.

Under the payout plan organized by the dairies, families whose children died received 200,000 yuan ($29,000), while others received 30,000 yuan ($4,380) for serious cases of kidney stones and 2,000 yuan ($290) for less severe cases.

More than 95 percent of victims' families had accepted the money, Shen said in the interview.

Since the scandal broke, victims' parents tried several times to file lawsuits, but courts refused to take their documents. Chinese courts often turn down class-action suits, preferring to deal with cases one by one to avoid running afoul of Communist Party officials, who ultimately control the judiciary.

At least 100 families who have already accepted compensation money plan to file lawsuits, lawyer Xu Zhiyong said, conceding that some could be rejected.

"Strictly speaking, after you sign the agreement accepting the compensation, you can't file a case. But if you can prove that you were forced to accept the money, then you can sue," he said.

One parent who took the money said it wasn't enough, but he didn't plan to fight on.

Luo Ming, whose 2-year-old daughter was diagnosed with kidney stones but apparently has recovered, said he spent 40,000 yuan ($5,850) in medical fees and travel costs and was forced to take six weeks of unpaid leave from his job as a machine designer in central Hunan province.

In January, local health authorities told him 2,000 ($290) in compensation was the best the family could expect.

It wasn't enough, Luo said. But "my job has been affected, and the government hasn't helped me. So I'm just going to give up."

Associated Press researcher Xi Yue in Beijing contributed to this report.

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