SAN FRANCISCO - A lawsuit seeking to stop McDonald's Corp. from offering toys with Happy Meals must be dismissed because parents can always choose not to buy the meals for their children, the hamburger giant said in a court filing late on Monday.
The lawsuit accuses McDonald's of unfairly using toys to lure children into its restaurants. The plaintiff, Monet Parham, a Sacramento, Calif., mother of two, charges that the company's advertising violates California consumer protection laws.
The Happy Meal has been a huge hit for McDonald's — making the company one of the world's largest toy distributors — and spawning me-too offerings at most other fast-food chains.
One recent and very successful Happy Meal promotion was a tie-in with the popular DreamWorks Animation film "Shrek Forever After." The meals included toy watches fashioned after the movie's characters Shrek, Donkey, Gingy and Puss in Boots.
McDonald's use of Happy Meal toys also has come under fire from public health officials, parents and lawmakers who are frustrated with rising childhood obesity rates and weak anti-obesity efforts from restaurant operators, which are largely self-regulated.
Parham, who filed suit last December, is represented by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nutrition advocacy group.
In the lawsuit, Parham admits she frequently tells her children "no" when they ask for Happy Meals, McDonald's said in Monday's court filing.
"She was not misled by any advertising, nor did she rely on any information from McDonald's," said the company.
McDonald's had the suit moved to federal court, but the plaintiff plans to fight to get the case back before a California state judge.
Should Parham's lawsuit be allowed, it would spawn a host of other problematic legal proceedings, McDonald's said.
"In short, advertising to children any product that a child asks for but the parent does not want to buy would constitute an unfair trade practice," the company said.
Stephen Gardner, litigation attorney for the public interest group, said McDonald's is using a cookie cutter approach to dismissing the lawsuit, with one key difference.
"What is different about this motion is that McDonald's has chosen to blame the victim — saying that it's all Monet Parham's fault if she doesn't force her daughter to ignore the onslaught of McDonald's marketing messages," Gardner said.
"McDonald's makes a lot of money by going around parents direct to kids, and it wants to continue with that strategy."
Most food companies have pledged not to advertise directly to children, but it is largely up to the industry to police its own actions on that front. The industry also has argued that government attempts to limit advertising crimp free speech protections.
The U.S. food industry has successfully fended off obesity-related lawsuits for years, including helping push through state laws that ban obesity-related lawsuits.
The proposed class action lawsuit in U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, is Parham v. McDonald's Corporation et al, 11-511.
(Reporting by Dan Levine in San Francisco, additional reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)