10 Food Service Lawsuits that Have Played Out in the Public Eye

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We have collected ten (in)famous restaurant industry and food service lawsuits, from McDonald’s to Wendy’s, that have played out in the public eye.

10 Food Service Lawsuits

1. McDonald’s customer suing over hot coffee burning her legs

In 1992 Stella Liebeck spilled a cup of McDonald’s coffee that she had between her knees, scalding her thighs, buttocks and groin. The 79-year old woman, who later sued, suffered third-degree burns on six percent of her body. The lawsuit, which gained national attention, initially resulted in a jury awarding Liebeck $160,000 to cover medical expenses and an additional $2.7 million in punitive damages. The jury held McDonald’s 80% responsible and Liebeck, who resided in Albuquerque, New Mexico, 20% responsible for the accident. McDonald’s, who appealed the verdict, eventually settled the case with Liebeck for an undisclosed amount, less than $600,000.

2. Man sues McDonald’s for making him fat and wins

A Brazilian judge in 2011 awarded a former McDonald’s manager $17,500 in damages after the man sued the burger behemoth for making him fat over the twelve years he was employed with the chain. The man, who charged in his suit that the free lunches were to blame along with ‘tasting’ to ensure food quality, has never been indentified. Court documents show the man gained 65 pounds over the 12-year period or 5.4 pounds per year. “We’re disappointed with this preliminary court ruling, as it’s not an accurate representation of our highly regarded work environment and culture,” McDonald’s said in a statement at the time.

3. Woman sues Wendy’s because she claimed there was a finger in her chili

Industry watchers were horrified in 2005 when a woman from Las Vegas claimed to have found a finger in her bowl of Wendy’s chili at a San Jose, California unit. Because of the adverse publicity sales at Wendy’s declined nationwide. Following the incident the FBI ran the fingerprint of the detached finger through its database with no matches found, and Wendy’s offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to the source. As it turned out the woman, Anna Ayala, had a history of lawsuits, filing 13 in Nevada and California. Ultimately the finger was traced to an associate of Ayala’s husband who had lost the finger in an industrial accident. Ayala later pleaded guilty to conspiring to file a false claim and attempted grand theft.

4. Foodmaker’s 90 lawsuits over Jack in the Box E. coli outbreaks

The restaurant industry collectively held its breath in 1993 when four children died of an E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak and 600 others were sickened. The outbreak occurred as a result of patrons eating undercooked hamburger patties at Jack in the Box locations in the Pacific Northwest. Parent company, Foodmaker, faced 90 lawsuits, each of which was settled quickly, some in excess of $7 million. The company, which stared down bankruptcy, lost thousands of customers as a result of the tragedy. Following the outbreak the chain hired highly respected food safety consultant David Theno to lead their turnaround, which ultimately made Jack in the Box the industry’s gold standard concerning food-handling practices.

5. Two Pesos versus Taco Cabana lawsuit reaches the Supreme Court

Quick-serve Taco Cabana alleged in court that the look and feel of its restaurants had been ripped off by Two Pesos, another quick-serve Tex Mex chain. Taco Cabana argued that its competitor had copied its 24-hour patio café concept, and virtually all of its interior and exterior design elements. Suing in 1987 for infringement of trade dress, the Taco Cabana lawsuit wound its way through the U.S. court system and ultimately landed in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1992, where the court upheld two lower court rulings. Those courts had decided in favor of Taco Cabana, awarding approximately $2 million damages.

6. Oprah Winfrey and the beef industry head to court

When Oprah Winfrey talks, people listen and that didn’t sit too well with the beef industry.  In two separate lawsuits the cattlemen said that Howard Lyman, a vegetarian activist and Winfrey guest, violated Texas law when he said U.S. beef could be at risk of spreading mad cow disease on a 1996 edition of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Winfrey’s vow to never eat another hamburger also was not well received by the industry, which said her statement damaged potential sales. Ultimately, Winfrey prevailed in the first case and a federal judge dismissed the second case. “It was kind of a soft landing to a hard trial,” said Chip Babcock, a First Amendment attorney who represented Winfrey.

7. In-N-Out versus CaliBurger for copying its signature burger

In-N-Out doesn’t have any units in China but its owners were none too pleased to find out that CaliBurger was serving up a Double-Double (In-N-Out’s signature burger) and also had similar architectural features, as well as palm-tree print cups and Animal style fries. Once the lawsuit for trademark infringement was filed earlier this year, CaliBurger’s owners, who were Americans with offices in Diamond Bar, California, agreed to tweak its menu and décor. “The matter has been resolved,” has been the only comment from In-N-Out.

8. Taco Bell lawsuit asks, ‘where’s the beef?’

Taco Bell was recently sued in a lawsuit that essentially asked the question, where’s the beef? According to the suit the YUM-brands owned chain is using a meat mixture that contains binders, and does not meet the minimum requirements set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to be labeled as “beef.” The lawsuit, which was filed in 2011 by an Alabama law firm on behalf of a Taco Bell customer, was eventually withdrawn but not before it had garnered headlines around the world. “This sets the record straight about the high quality of our seasoned beef and the integrity of our advertising,” Taco Bell CEO Greg Creed said at the time. “We took great exception to the false claims made about our seasoned beef and wish the attorneys had contacted us before filing and publicizing a lawsuit that disparaged our brand.”

9. BK franchisees sue parent company over $1 cheeseburger

In 2009 Burger King franchisees sued their Miami-based parent over a $1 cheeseburger promotion asking the court to agree that BK does not have the right to set prices. The National Franchisee Association, which represents more than 80 percent of the system, said BK used the promotion to boost sales in an attempt to satisfy investors at the expense of the franchisees. After a two-year court battle the franchisees dropped the suit and in the bargain now have more input on both the pricing of Value Menu items and the length of special deals. “We saw this as an opportunity to resolve our differences and move forward,” Steve Wilborg, Burger King’s president of North America, told Reuters at the time. “It’s important for our franchisees to win.”

10. The New York State Restaurant Association sues NYC over calories disclosure

The New York State Restaurant Association filed a federal lawsuit in an attempt to halt New York City’s 2008 rule that made chain restaurants disclose calorie information on their menus. The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, came just 10 days after the city’s Board of Health passed its new rule that would affect about 10% of the city’s restaurants. The association, which represents 7,000 eateries in the state, made the same argument two years earlier but to no avail as the rule is now completely rolled out, affecting chain restaurants with15 units or more. In a statement the city’s Department of Health said at the time. “We hoped the industry would work with us to address New York City’s obesity epidemic, but it has once again decided not to.”

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