HERSHEY, PA–In one of the largest product-liability rulings in U.S. history, the Hershey Foods Corporation was ordered by a Pennsylvania jury Monday to pay $135 billion in restitution fees to 900,000 obese Americans who for years consumed the company's fattening snack foods.
"Let this verdict send a clear message to Big Chocolate," said Pennsylvania Attorney General Andrew Garsten, addressing reporters following the historic ruling. "If you knowingly sell products that cause obesity, you will pay."
The five-state class-action suit accused Hershey's of "knowingly and willfully marketing rich, fatty candy bars containing chocolate and other ingredients of negligible nutritional value." The company was also charged with publishing nutritional information only under pressure from the government, marketing products to children, and artificially "spiking" their products with such substances as peanuts, crisped rice, and caramel to increase consumer appeal.
Jurors took less than five hours to reach the decision following a two-year trial covering nearly one million snackers in Pennsylvania, Florida, New Hampshire, Arizona, and Texas. A majority of the unprecedented punitive damages will go toward obesity victims and their immediate families. The remainder will be funneled into weight-loss and youth-snacking prevention programs.
"This is a vindication for myself and all chocolate victims," said Beaumont, TX, resident Earl Hoffler, holding a picture of his wife Emily, who in 1998 succumbed to obesity after nearly 40 years of chocoholism. "This award cannot bring Emily back, but I take some comfort knowing that her tragic, unnecessary death did not go unpunished."
Hoffler's teary-eyed account of his wife's brave battle against chocolate was widely regarded as the emotional high point of the trial. First introduced to Hershey's chocolate as a young trick-or-treater, Emily quickly developed a four-bar-a-day habit, turning in adulthood to Hershey's Special Dark, a stronger, unfiltered form of the product. By age 47, she had ballooned to 352 pounds and was a full-blown chocoholic. What little savings the family had was drained by Weight Watchers memberships, Richard Simmons videotapes, and Fat Trapper pills, all of which proved futile and only prolonged the Tofflers' agonizing ordeal.
Equally pleased by the ruling was Mel Brewer of Phoenix, whose father received free chocolate as a soldier during World War II.
"Dad came back from Europe hooked," Brewer said. "Before long, he was going through a case of Mounds and Mr. Goodbars a week. He wouldn't eat ice cream without Hershey's chocolate syrup and crushed Heath bars on it. He died of a heart attack at age 54 weighing 415 pounds."
With litigation pending against the nation's top five chocolate makers, including a $102 billion Mississippi suit against Nestle, the entire industry is on alert. Big Chocolate has already suffered numerous major setbacks in recent years. In 1997, a California judge ordered chocolate manufacturers to fund $27 billion in education programs to prevent youth chocolate consumption. In 1999, a federal judge prohibited chocolate advertising on TV and billboards and banned the use of cartoon imagery in advertising. In addition, the judge ruled that a warning label must be placed on all chocolate products reading, "The Surgeon General Has Determined That Eating Chocolate May Lead To Being Really Fat."
Lawyers for the Hershey Corporation said the company intends to appeal the decision, which could drive the price of a 1.4-ounce pack of Rolos as high as $1.29.
"Adult consumers know the risks involved in using our products," Hershey's chief counsel Marvin Black said. "They know that if not used in a responsible manner, there can be some negative consequences. But this is true of anything in life. Further, the decision to use our products is one that has always been left up to the individual. The Hershey Corporation has never forced anyone to use its products, nor has it ever intentionally added substances to its candies to increase addictiveness. If consumers are hooked, it is only because of said candy's overwhelmingly delicious chocolate goodness."
Whatever the outcome of the Hershey's appeal, the chocolate industry has irrevocably changed as a result of Monday's verdict.
"For over a century, Hershey's has lived off the fat of the land," Erie, PA, claimant Pamela Schiff said. "Now it's time to pay us back."