By Anita Chang
Associated Press Writer
BEIJING (AP) — Hundreds of families with children sickened in last year's tainted milk scandal are planning to file lawsuits against the dairy companies involved after a top justice official said courts will accept the cases, an organizer of victims' families said Wednesday.
The lawsuits would allow for compensation outside of a government-sanctioned plan that gave lump sums to victims' families. The majority of the more than 600 families refused to accept the money from the dairies, demanding higher amounts including money for emotional harm as well as medical and other expenses.
"There will be lawsuits against all 22 dairy companies," said Zhao Lianhai, a parent who has rallied families through a Web site he created that details the crisis.
Infant formula contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine was blamed for killing at least six babies and sickening nearly 300,000 in the scandal that began in September. The crisis highlighted the need for major overhauls in China's food safety system, culminating in a law enacted over the weekend that consolidates hundreds of disparate regulations covering the country's 500,000 food processing companies.
Shen Deyong, executive vice president of China's highest court, said more than 95 percent of victims' families had accepted compensation from the dairies. Under that plan, 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.
Shen noted there was a small number of parents who rejected the offer and wanted to file lawsuits.
"The courts have done the preparation work and will accept the compensation cases at any time," Shen said Monday in an online interview with the official People's Daily newspaper.
In China's legal system, the first step in a lawsuit is for a court to accept the paperwork and enter it into the system. Next, the court decides whether to act on the lawsuit by opening an investigation — but it can also reject the case.
Since the scandal broke, victims' parents have tried several times to file their lawsuits with various courts, but the courts had refused to even take their documents.
The plaintiffs in the planned lawsuits include at least 100 families who have already accepted compensation money from the dairies, lawyer Xu Zhiyong said, conceding that some could be rejected by the courts.
"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.
The Qingdao Intermediate People's Court in northern China was the first to accept a compensation case, with families of 54 children who drank Shengyuan brand formula filing a lawsuit Monday demanding 8 million yuan ($1.2 million), Beijing attorney Li Jinglin said. Shengyuan's parent company is based in Qingdao.
Li said he was expecting a response from the court sometime this week. But he added that he had also met with a Shengyuan lawyer and there was the possibility of an out-of-court settlement.
It was not known how likely it was that the court would accept the families' demands. Li said a court official told him: "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.
Families planning lawsuits against the other dairies were going to meet Thursday to discuss specifics of their cases and the next steps, said Zhao. His 3-year-old son was sickened after drinking formula made by the dairy at the heart of the scandal, Sanlu Group Co.
The tainted milk scandal has been blamed on unscrupulous middlemen accused of adding melamine, which is high in nitrogen, to watered-down milk to fool quality tests for protein content. Melamine can cause kidney stones and kidney failure.
The contamination underscored the failures in China's food safety system. Its reputation has been battered in recent years after problems with products ranging from drug-laced seafood to eggs colored with Sudan Red industrial dye.
Associated Press researcher Xi Yue in Beijing contributed to this report.