Serial Supermarket Suits Abuse the System, Says Beijing Court
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2017-03-15 13:43:19

A family from northern China has discovered a get-rich-quick scheme that involves cooking liquor, consumer rights legislation, and a string of lawsuits.

But on Tuesday, one day before World Consumer Rights Day, the Mentougou District People’s Court in Beijing dismissed a 77-year-old woman’s food safety lawsuit against supermarket chain Shuntianfu. The court had discovered that members of her family had repeatedly purchased the same allegedly substandard product and brought several lawsuits demanding compensation money, The Beijing News reported.

In February, the woman — identified only by her surname, Li — sued the supermarket company over several in-store purchases of five bags of cooking liquor, each costing 2.9 yuan ($0.42). In the lawsuit, Li said that Shuntianfu had violated food safety standards because the packaging didn’t mention a production date. She asked the company to refund the 14.5 yuan she had spent, and requested another 5,000 yuan in compensation.

The court sent an employee to Li’s hometown, a village in Hebei province, and found out that the elderly woman was partially paralyzed and hadn’t purchased the liquor herself in Beijing. She reportedly had no idea that she was suing anyone and had merely signed her name on an authorization document at the request of her son Zhao Shu.

According to earlier court documents, Li’s family members — two sons and one daughter-in-law — sued Shuntianfu three times in 2016, winning the court’s favor each time. The supermarket chain was ordered to pay compensation totaling 16,000 yuan — a significant amount for many rural Chinese families.

Having tasted victory, the plaintiffs brought another three lawsuits this year, but did not receive the same outcome. The court determined that because the purchase times on the receipts they submitted as evidence were very close — in some cases just several minutes apart — they should not be considered separate purchases.

Because Zhao had not been truthful about his receipts and continued to bring lawsuits regarding the same matter after he had already won once, the court believed he was abusing the legal system in pursuit of money, not justice, and “severely criticized” him, the report said.

The lawyer representing Shuntianfu told The Beijing News that the plaintiffs had brought lawsuits for a total of 35 bags of liquor, which were all purchased during the same short period of time. “The plaintiffs are exploiting loopholes in the law,” the lawyer said. “We think that they are abusing their litigious rights.”

The lawyer said that Shuntianfu plans to sue Zhao for compensation. The company has also appealed the earlier lawsuits, but the results are as yet unknown.

Another supermarket brand in Beijing, Yonghui, also recently took legal action against an unsatisfied customer with questionable motives. The company discovered that a man who had sued for compensation had erased the production dates from product packaging and had himself put hairs in the bread he bought.

The tactic of purposely buying products that are not up to standard to hold companies accountable is common among so-called fakes hunters, who seek out counterfeit and other substandard goods for a living and say they are protecting consumers’ rights. During last year’s Nov. 11 shopping festival created by internet giant Alibaba — similar to Black Friday in the U.S. — professional fakes hunter Wang Hai spent about 1 million yuan on counterfeit products, aiming to earn back 10 times as much in compensation payouts.

But people like Wang have faced increasing criticism in recent years. “Fakes hunters are rascals,” wrote one user on microblog platform Weibo. “They wouldn’t dare waste government resources if it weren’t for the cover of protecting the public’s interests.”

According to the latest draft of new consumer rights regulations, fakes hunters may lose their legal protection if it can be proven that they bought fake or substandard goods on purpose. In November 2016, the draft regulations were sent to the State Council, China’s cabinet, which has the power to approve new legislation.

Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

(Header image: A worker unloads containers of cooking liquor in Baipu Township, Jiangsu province, Dec. 17, 2015. Xu Congjun/IC)