Paper Assignment Idea: Obesity Lawsuits
One of my favorite topics to teach in undergraduate law & society courses (I teach a 300-level “Sociology of Law” course in a large public university) is the topic of disputing. We spend quite a bit of time considering the question of “frivolous” lawsuits, including the now-infamous McDonald’s Hot Coffee case. In this paper assignment, I ask students to apply evidence and theory to the question of whether obesity lawsuits should be considered frivolous or meritorious.
I’ve only used this assignment a few times; my experience has been nearly every student initially believes that obesity lawsuits are frivolous and should be banned. Some are never able to make an argument that contradicts their personal opinion, even as they seem to recognize that the evidence doesn’t support their opinion. Most students, however, really enjoy watching the film and learning how to build an argument from myriad sources. The feedback has generally been quite positive, in that they view the assignment as an opportunity to a) re-evaluate their personal opinions and b) see how their personal opinions have been socially constructed.
Here is the assignment:
In 2002, two teenage girls issued a complaint against McDonald’s for contributing to their obesity because it did not provide the necessary information about the health risks associated with its meals. The company’s lawyers argued that the case did not even warrant the court’s attention, saying the matter was really about common sense and individual responsibility. Most people who heard about the case found it absurd, including Morgan Spurlock, the director of Super Size Me. When asked what prompted him to make this film, he said, in an interview:
Well, for me it was really inspired by the lawsuits. But what really did it for me was in 2002, at Thanksgiving, you couldn’t open a magazine or turn on the TV without hearing about the obesity epidemic in America, and everyone always singled out fast food as a big problem in the epidemic. People were always pointing the finger at the fast food industry. And I was a big fan of personal responsibility - you know, no one is forcing you to eat. We’re not geese being stuffed with corn.
But the more I started to hear about the lawsuits, I started to say, “Well, there’s something here. There’s something in the marketing, the advertising campaigns. The content of the food is something they really don’t make known, how much fat and sugar is in [the food] you’re eating. There’s definitely a side to this I can understand.”
I was sitting on the couch watching a television program, and I can’t remember if it was someone from McDonald’s or someone from the food company, but they’ve got a lobbyist who came on and said, “You can’t link our food to these two girls getting sick. You can’t link our food to these girls being obese. Our food is healthy; it’s nutritious; it’s good for you.” And I thought, if it’s that good for me, then I should be able to eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for thirty days straight and be fine.
I want you to make an argument in your paper. Have a specific point/thesis that you develop and support throughout. Your paper should reflect careful and thoughtful analysis of the film and course materials. It is not to be based solely on your opinions (e.g., “Why I Think Lawsuits Are Stupid” or “My Observations About the Disintegration of Society”). In your paper, your views are important, as they may shape your ultimate argument, but you are expected to use evidence from the film, readings, and class discussions to not only support your argument, but to also explore possible counterarguments.
Your paper should begin with an introduction that clearly states the argument you are going to make and that provides an overview of the paper. The rest of the paper is up to you. You need to accomplish several tasks: you need to describe/summarize the film, describe/summarize obesity lawsuits and the ban on them, and most important, offer an in-depth analysis of the viability/legitimacy/frivolity/whatever of obesity lawsuits. Be sure to support your analysis with specific examples drawn from the film itself and to link your arguments back to the ideas in course readings and discussions. There are many acceptable ways to structure your paper. Feel free to be creative! The movie does not have to be the central focus of your paper.
You should write your paper as if your intended reader was an intelligent person, perhaps another college student, but someone who has not taken this class and has not seen the film. Therefore, if you refer to a scene or person in the film, you must provide sufficient detail for the reader to understand. Similarly, when referencing a course reading, you should outline the argument or describe the research finding in sufficient detail for someone not in the class to know what you are talking about. If you use any technical term from the readings, be sure to define it in your own words.