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What China's tainted milk may not bring: lawsuits

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More than 1,000 parents have called Li and his colleagues, he says, complaining that hospitals around the country are charging to treat babies whose milk-induced kidney stones are below a certain size, or offering only a free scan but not free treatment, or denying babies treatment unless parents pay for a bed.

The central government has promised to pay all the medical costs arising from the scandal, the extent of which is still being discovered: On Sunday a Hong Kong hospital reported the first case outside mainland China of a child found with kidney stones after drinking tainted milk.

But it is unclear whether the authorities intend to reclaim the money they spend from Sanlu. For the time being, Sanlu and 21 other companies whose baby formula was found to include the toxic chemical melamine are offering victims no more than reimbursement for the money they spent on their poisoned product.

"If their children recover, and the government has paid for their healthcare, how can they sue Sanlu?" asks Liu Renwen, a legal scholar at the China Academy of Social Sciences. "I don't think many will try."

The 1986 principles of Chinese tort law do not allow citizens to claim damages for moral or spiritual suffering – what US lawyers call "pain and suffering" – only material damages to compensate for medical bills, for example.

That is changing, however, and Chinese courts are increasingly granting moral damages. Four years ago two families from the province of Anhui won damages from another infant formula manufacturer whose substandard milk powder was blamed for their babies' malnutrition.

Neither won more than $4,300 for their pain and suffering, however, which is hardly a large sum for major milk producers such as Sanlu.

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