See You In Court


James Wright, Senior Editor

Published on
August 21, 2008

Food companies are extremely vulnerable to often-wild consumer claims of contamination and negligence. And the bigger the company, the greater the chances of a frivolous lawsuit that, even if defeated or dismissed before trial, results in a PR nightmare that can be difficult to overcome. Two lawsuits--one filed this week against Shaw's Crab House and a previously dismissed, now-revived suit against Chicken of the Sea--appear to be dubious and a mockery of the legal system.

On Monday, a man sued the Chicago restaurant and its parent company, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises. Anthony Franz contends the restaurant staff was negligent in serving him undercooked salmon, which he claims left him with a tapeworm that, when eventually passed, measured 9 feet in length. He wants $100,000 for "loss of enjoyment of life" after the 2006 incident. Shaw's denies any responsibility.

And on Wednesday, the 3rd U.S. Court of Appeals reinstated a previously dismissed lawsuit against canned tuna supplier Chicken of the Sea International. A New Jersey woman, Deborah Fellner, sued the San Diego company in 2006 for mercury poisoning she allegedly sustained from a diet consisting almost exclusively of Chicken of the Sea tuna products from 1999 to 2004.

Fellner says the tuna canner failed to warn consumers of the health risks associated with excessive tuna consumption. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's consumer warning apparently wasn't enough. It's reminiscent the lawsuit, tossed out by a federal judge in 2003, which alleged McDonald's was responsible for making people obese.

On the surface, both lawsuits appear to be blatant money grabs. The fear of a lawsuit is why some Las Vegas restaurants pulled lobster off the menu after the recent tomalley advisory mess. Too many precedents show it's likely that neither the tuna canner nor the restaurant is liable for the consumers' respective maladies. A couple examples:

Earlier this year, a Pennsylvania family reported finding pills in frozen fish fillets from Gorton's. A federal investigation determined that harmless herbal supplements were placed in the fillets in the family's home, an isolated incident of product tampering. Still, Gorton's recalled 1,000 cases of the product and had to act quickly and publicly to avoid consumer panic and loss of trust. Compared to the accusation, the resolution got scant media attention.

And who could forget the notorious 2005 case of the severed finger a Las Vegas woman claimed to have found in a bowl of Wendy's chili? Eventually, the woman and her husband pleaded guilty to conspiring to filing a false claim and grand theft. Wendy's suffered an estimated $2.5 million in damages.

In our litigious society, many people treat lawsuits like lottery tickets. Considering this dangerous trend, any company involved in the food industry, from suppliers on down, should employ full-time legal counsel (many already do) or have a lawyer on retainer, not to mention a crack public relations team on call. With a product recall or a damaging lawsuit, the climate surrounding your business can change in a heartbeat.

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