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Greg Webb
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Class-Action Lawsuit Filed in China Against Companies Involved in Melamine Scandal

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A class-action suit was filed in China against 22 dairy companies seeking compensation for the deaths and illnesses of hundreds of children caused by milk tainted with melamine. Product liability suits and class-actions are extremely rare in China, where the ruling Communist Party discourages the filing of lawsuits with multiple plaintiffs because it could disrupt social stability.

The lawsuit was filed with the Supreme People’s Court on behalf of 213 children who were affected by melamine. Melamine is a toxic chemical illegally added to dairy products in order to give false readings of higher levels of protein. It can cause various health issues, including kidney problems and death, especially in children.

According to the Chinese government, 300,000 children have been sickened and six children have died from consuming products with melamine. However, the 213 victims in the lawsuit include four deceased children who have not been included by the government in the official death toll. Government officials were involved in covering up the deaths and illnesses.

The attorneys representing the children previously filed two other class-action lawsuits, but the lower courts did not accept the case. The current suit is seeking more than $5.2 million in compensation, with varying amounts being demanded for each individual child. The largest demand is $73,000 for a dead child.

Sanlu Group, China’s largest producer of infant formula which is now in bankruptcy, had the highest concentration of melamine in its products. All of the deaths so far have been linked to Sanlu. The former chairwoman of the company, Tian Wenhua, was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty for her role in contaminating the products.

Two other men involved in the scandal have been sentenced to death. Zhang Yujun received the death penalty for producing and selling melamine-laced “protein powder.” The other man, Geng Jinping, received the death penalty for producing and selling toxic food. Eighteen other defendants have been implicated with contributing to the scandal.

Sanlu and the other 21 companies in the lawsuit sent a letter to parents offering about $29,200 for the death of a child, $4,400 for children suffering from serious illness like kidney stones and acute kidney failure, and $300 for less severe cases. Thousands of parents have accepted compensation, while others have rejected it, demanding long-term health care for the victims and medical research into their illnesses.