When one thinks of global mass tort issues, questions of actions by European citizens in U.S. courts or the spate of class actions in Canada may come to mind. Perhaps we will need a broader perspective, as the courts in China have reportedly given the green light to suits arising out of the distribution of tainted dairy products. We have posted on this issue before, within the larger context of product issues arising from goods made in China.

The move signals an apparent change in the way Beijing is handling fallout from the melamine scandal, which was implicate din the death of at least six infants and sickening of nearly 300,000 others with kidney problems. A government-sanctioned compensation plan had been proposed to resolve the issues, but a large number of families have refused government compensation because it is too small, electing instead to try to sue. Under the payout plan organized by the dairies, families whose children died would have 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.

Plaintiffs needed government permission to bring suit, and it remains unclear how the government plans to handle the cases. Chinese courts often turn down class-action or group action suits, preferring to deal with cases one by one to avoid running afoul of Communist Party officials, who ultimately control the judiciary.

The crisis highlighted the need for major overhauls to China’s food safety system, culminating in a law passed recently that proposes to consolidate hundreds of regulations covering the country’s 500,000 food processing companies.