Chinese families sue over tainted milk, accused prepare for sentencing

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 21st January 2009

As a Chinese court prepares to sentence those responsible for the melamine milk contamination that rocked China, 213 families have gone to the highest court in search of compensation. The families believe a payout scheme created by the government is not adequate.

The criminal contamination of milk powder last year was linked to the tragic deaths of six babies and 294,000 infant illnesses and sparked a spate of consumer level recalls on Chinese dairy products. It was caused by the adding of the chemical melamine in an endeavour to make milk appear to have higher protein levels.

Last month, the 22 dairy companies at the centre of the issue offered to pay compensation of 1.1b Yuan (A$244m) after talks with the Chinese Government, which would involve providing around A$44,000 to all families with a bereavement and A$6,600 to families whose child/children were made seriously ill. The lawsuit, however, seeks A$70,000 for those families whose child died or was seriously ill, with reduced compensation for less serious cases.

The families have tried, unsuccessfully, to have their case heard in lower courts and are hoping that Supreme People’s Court will at least accept the lawsuit.

“Other courts have not accepted the case and haven’t even given a reply when the families have approached them,” Lin Zheng, part of a group of lawyers who have volunteered to help the families, told AFP. “We believe that the Supreme Court will at least give an answer in accordance with judicial procedures, even if it decides not to accept the case.”A Chinese court will sentence 21 defendants implicated in the scandal on Thursday, with the death penalty considered a possibility in some cases. The 21 accused included four former senior executives of Sanlu Group, the dairy at the center of the scandal, on charges of manufacturing and selling fake or substandard products, said a spokesman with the Hebei Provincial Higher People’s Court, according to China’s Xinhua news agency.

The four executives included Tian Wenhua, Sanlu’s former board Chairwoman and General Manager. Tian pleaded guilty to her charges of manufacturing and selling fake or substandard products, but her lawyer remains hopeful that she will not receive the death penalty.

“According to the criminal law, there is no capital punishment for the crime of manufacturing and selling fake or substandard products. Therefore, the most severe penalty for her would be life imprisonment,” Liu Xinwei told Beijing News.

Also set for sentencing are 17 others who have been found to produce or sell melamine tainted products.

From Aug. 2 to Sept. 12 last year, Sanlu Group produced 904 tons of melamine-tainted baby formula powder and sold 813 tons of the tainted products, making 47.5 million yuan (A$10.6 million), according to Xinhua. Sanlu has since filed for bankruptcy.