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1 Jan 2010

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

Sanlu lawsuits (re tainted milk in China)

Status: CLOSED

Date lawsuit was filed
1 Jan 2010
Ort der Einreichung: China
Ort des Vorfalls: China
Art des Rechtsstreits: Inländisch



In September 2008, the Chinese dairy company Sanlu admitted publicly that it had knowingly sold milk products tainted with melamine worldwide (mostly in China).  The tainted milk caused serious health problems for over 300,000 children and caused the deaths of six children in China.

On 22 January 2009, the Shijazhuang Intermediate People’s Court (China) sentenced 21 employees of Sanlu (including Sanlu executives) for knowingly producing and adding melamine to milk products, in order to boost the milk’s protein count.  The court issued prison sentences ranging from 5 years to life imprisonment.  Although Sanlu had filed for bankruptcy in November 2008, the court fined the company over 50 million yuan (US$7.3 million).

From 2008 to 2009, a number of civil class-action lawsuits were filed in various Chinese regional courts.  However, no lawsuits were admitted by these courts. 

Eight parents, whose children were harmed by the melamine tainted milk, filed a writ against Fonterra Cooperative Group on 8 April 2010 at the Small Claims Tribunal in Hong Kong.  Fonterra is registered in Hong Kong.  The plaintiffs, mainland China residents, sought individual compensation ranging from HK$12,400 to HK$33,500.  The claim alleged that, as a major shareholder of Sanlu (owning 43%), Fonterra knew about the melamine-tainted milk, and Fonterra was vicariously liable for the illnesses of children who had consumed the milk.  Fonterra applied to dismiss the claim on the basis that Hong Kong was not the appropriate forum for the claim because the claimants were mainland China residents and the injuries also occurred in mainland China.  On 25 May 2010, the Hong Kong Small Claims Tribunal dismissed the claims on the basis that Fonterra was a minority shareholder and did not control the production process, and the tribunal also ruled that Hong Kong was not the correct venue for the claims.  On 6 August 2010 the tribunal held a review hearing and again rejected the lawsuit, on the same grounds.

- “Redress by relocation”, Economist, 3 Jun 2010
- "Bad milk bid turns sour – as judge rejects claims", Patsy Moy, Standard [Hong Kong], 28 May 2010
- "Hong Kong Lawsuit Field by Parents of Melamine Babies", Li Zhen, Epoch Times, 5 May 2010
- "Three on Trial over New Case of Tainted Milk Products", New Tang Dynasty Television, 1 Mar 2010
- "Chinese courts to accept milk scandal cases: report", Agence France Presse, 3 Mar 2009
- "Chinese dairy companies apologize for milk scandal by text message", Xinhua, 2 Jan 2009
- "Chinese Parents File Milk Lawsuit", Sky Canaves & Juliet Ye, Wall Street Journal, 1 Oct 2008

- Fonterra: "Fonterra Believes Hong Kong Claim Has No Foundation"
- Peng Jiang [counsel to claimants]: “An Explanation of the Lawsuit against Fonterra in Hong Kong”, in China Rights Forum, 26 Jan 2011
- An Ning: “The Tainted Milk Powder Incident – Hope in the Midst of Despair”, in China Rights Forum, 26 Jan 2011

-  Zhou et al. v. Fonterra Brands (China) Ltd., Small Claims Tribunal, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Claim Numbers 15980 – 15983 of 2010
- [PDF] Judgment – Reasons for Ruling, 27 May 2010