BEIJING — A northern Chinese court has accepted a compensation suit against the dairy at the heart of the tainted milk scandal that sickened nearly 300,000 children across China _ the first court to do so, state media reported Wednesday.
The court instructed a lawyer to pay a standard filing fee in the case of a couple whose infant daughter was sickened, indicating that it will be deciding whether to open a trial. Such decisions usually take about a month, said the lawyer, Peng Jian.
"This is the first time a court has accepted a lawsuit (in the scandal), so we applaud the decision," Peng said.
Formula contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine was blamed for killing at least six babies last fall.
Unscrupulous middlemen are accused of adding melamine, which is high in nitrogen, to watered-down milk to fool quality tests for protein content. When ingested, melamine can cause kidney stones and kidney failure.
Those revelations and simmering outrage over recent product safety scandals shook China's often unresponsive legal system into action, culminating in a law that consolidates disparate regulations covering the country's 500,000 food processing companies.
Zhang Kai, another lawyer involved in cases against Sanlu, praised the court's decision. "It shows the government is now willing to use judicial means to solve the case. This is a sign of real progress," Zhang said.
The court's decision this week comes after a top official of China's highest court, Shen Deyong, announced this month that parents of sickened children who rejected government compensation were welcome to sue now-defunct Sanlu Group and other dairies involved.
Despite the announcement, parents say local officials have tried to intimidate them into abandoning lawsuits in return for cash.
Always wary of challenges to their authority, local governments here also sometimes seek to protect firms whose taxes pay their salaries, even when that undermines central government policies.
Peng said the family was asking for 31,000 yuan ($4,538) in compensatory damages from Sanlu, which was based in Shijiazhuang. Peng said the victim, an 11-month-old girl, had become ill after drinking Sanlu's infant formula.
"As long as we can prove that the children drank Sanlu's products, then there is no question we will win. The only question really is how much compensation will be awarded," Peng told The Associated Press by telephone.
In the past, cases against Sanlu had been handled at the administrative level rather than through the legal system, with the apparent intention of resolving them through mediation, Peng said.
Peng said he had filed six separate cases with Shijiazhuang's Xinhua District Court, but that the case accepted this week was seeking the lowest amount of compensation.
The infant's relatively mild illness justified a lower amount, he said. Another family he was representing from the central province of Henan whose child had died was asking for 300,000 yuan ($44,000) in compensation.
The government has offered one-time payouts using money from dairies named in the scandal, but families that take the money cannot sue for more unless they can prove they were forced to agree to the compensation plan.
More than 600 families have rejected the offers in hopes of winning higher compensation from the companies involved.
The official Xinhua News Agency cited a spokesman for the Shijiazhuang court, Wang Wei, as confirming the case had been accepted. Calls to the Shijiazhuang Intermediate People's Court that oversees the Xinhua District Court rang unanswered on Wednesday.
Associated Press researcher Yu Bing in Beijing contributed to this story.