WASHINGTON—Parents of Chinese children who died or became ill after drinking infant milk formula contaminated with melamine say they will sue a subsidiary of a Chinese milk powder manufacturer based in the U.S. state of Maryland.
A member of one of the affected families surnamed Liu said Qingdao Shengyuan Milk Co. Ltd., a dairy products manufacturer based in the eastern China city of Qingdao, had a Delaware-registered investment subsidiary with offices in Maryland, rendering it subject to U.S. law.
"We have signed a contract with a Maryland-based lawyer who will represent us in this collective compensation suit," Liu said.
"There are milk victim parents who are willing to pay for the legal fees and expenses and who want to pursue justice in the United States," he said.
Four infants died of renal calculus and tens of thousands of others were hospitalized with kidney stones in the wake of the scandal, which broke in September with the recall of milk powder made by New Zealand-invested Sanlu Group.
Chinese lawyers warned off
Several other Chinese brands have since been found to contain melamine, which was added to boost the apparent protein content of poor quality or watered down milk.
Lawyers across China were initially poised to file a series of class action lawsuits against companies and local authorities, but were warned off taking on any milk-related cases by officials in every locality.
Liu said the parents had already been requested to send initial legal fees, and that the parents' U.S. lawyers were hoping for a preliminary hearing in a Maryland district court soon.
"Our American lawyer’s office is very enthusiastic because the contract stipulates the lawyer will earn 30 percent of the total compensation," said Liu, who is currently still in China. "If you calculate the 200 parents we have now, the sum of the compensation will be more than U.S. $100 million.”
Liu said the U.S. lawyers would first need to collect evidence from the parents, either by visiting China in person, or by asking a Chinese law firm to deputize for them.
Liu said the parents were hoping to hurt the dairy producer that sold them contaminated milk, but accepted that an out-of-court settlement might also ensue.
"Even such a compromise is much better than the current gloomy reality in China in which we victims don’t have any hope,” he said.
Other parents said they were doing the same thing.
"We are now discussing the case with an American lawyer and we decided to sue Qingdao Shengyuan Milk Co.,” a parent in the eastern province of Shandong said.
"Many lawyers who once wished voluntarily to represent the victims have had to quit due to pressure from the government," he added.
Meanwhile, parents in the eastern city of Nanjing vowed to keep fighting for their cause, also with the help of American lawyers.
Loss of trust in legal process
"We will not give up and we will pursue our goal to the end," he said. "No matter what, we will ultimately come out on top, because we want an answer."
A Chinese lawyer who wished to remain anonymous said he felt guilty for not taking on such cases following government pressure.
"The judicial system in our country cannot function independently and there is therefore a lack of justice," he said. "The government always tries to cover up its problems, and its actions over the tainted milk have shaken public trust in the legal system."
"This dire reality is in itself more harmful than the contaminated milk. How can the victims' parents believe in the rule of law? This is sad for China."
Original reporting in Mandarin by Qiao Long. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Chen Ping and Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.