Have you ever watched a horror movie and thought, “Thank goodness this isn’t real”? After reading about these restaurant lawsuits, you may be thanking your lucky stars your restaurant wasn’t the star of these real-life “horror” stories.
#10: The Infamous Hot Coffee Incident
The “hot coffee lawsuit” brought against McDonald’s is pretty legendary in terms of restaurant lawsuits. The jury awarded Stella Liebeck $2.86 million after she suffered third-degree burns from a McDonald’s coffee she accidentally spilled in her lap.
- $2.86 million
- Loss of reputation via lots of bad press
Lesson Learned: Always provide clear labeling for how your food or beverages are prepared.
#9: I Say a Little Prayer for Food
A few years ago, a man named Hiram Jimenez attempted to sue Applebee’s after he was burned by a plate of fajitas. The catch? The reason he was burned in the first place was because he leaned his face over the “sizzling, smoking and ‘real hot’” fajitas while praying. The lower court dismissed the case because the risk of injury was clearly evident.
- One less customer
Lesson Learned: Never assume your customers will use common sense, and make sure your employees are trained fully on your menu items, preparations, and warnings.
#8: Celebrity Chef Steals Tips
A multimillion-dollar class action lawsuit was filed against famed Michelin-starred chef Daniel Bouloud. Employees claimed that Bouloud had not properly compensated them for the work they did, that he pocketed their tips, and that he forced tipped employees to pool tips with kitchen staff.
- $1.4 million
- Loss of employee trust
- Brand’s reputation tarnished
Lesson Learned: Always pay your staff a fair wage.
#7: Franchisees Freak Out
When Burger King decided to run a $1 double cheeseburger promotion in 2009, franchisees revolted. While the promotion resulted in an increase in visits, the franchisees were losing money, claiming a $.10 loss on each double cheeseburger sold, and subsequently sued the franchise.
- Lawsuit dropped, but Burger King had to give franchisees more power over setting prices
- Loss of trust from franchisees
Lesson Learned: If you’re running a franchise, you’ve got to treat your franchisees like family—especially if you’re expecting them to stay invested in your brand.
#6: The Skin Sandwich
An Ohio man sued his local Arby’s after finding the skin from a restaurant manager’s fingertip in his sandwich. It turns out that the restaurant manager, who had sliced the tip of his thumb while using a shredder, remembered to sanitize the area afterwards, but forgot to throw away the contaminated lettuce bin.
- Loss of reputation via really bad press
- This is just a guess, but they probably lost a lot of time having to retrain all their employees on food and workplace safety procedures.
Lesson Learned: Always have clearly defined food safety, preparation, and workplace injury information available around your restaurant so there’s never any doubt on how to handle these types of incidents.
#5: Idiot Discrimination
In 2012, a West Virginia man sued Bob Evans after a hostess rudely sat him down at a table and said, “You damned idiot”. Even though the manager and his waitress apologized for the incident and he was offered a free meal, he turned them down in lieu of the lawsuit.
- No information is available on whether or not Bob Evans lost the lawsuit
Lesson Learned: Train your staff to be hospitable with every guest, every time. The customer will always be right.
#4: Coming Up Short
Subway has been sued multiple times due to fraudulent advertising. In other words, some customers feel that their foot-long sub claims are misleading. The damning evidence came in the form of photographs taken of the 11-inch subs.
- $525,000 in legal fees for the plaintiffs
- $500 to each of the plaintiffs
- Revamp in processes to ensure foot-long subs are always exactly one-foot long
- Loss of reputation
Lesson Learned: Be honest with your customers. Or find a way to make consistent food preparation and quality a guarantee across all stores.
#3: The Other Infamous Coffee Lawsuit
Starbucks tends to make the news for their holiday cup designs and ill-fated efforts to talk about #RaceTogether. But they’ve also recently made headlines after iced coffee-drinking customers accused Starbucks of short-changing them on actual coffee.
- This particular lawsuit is pending, though one from earlier in the year was thrown out
- Loss of customers who no doubt feel cheated and misled
Lesson Learned: Take your customers’ feedback and complaints seriously.
#2: Jack vs. Carl
In what is the only case on this list of a restaurant suing another restaurant, it’s a doozy (or dookie?) of a lawsuit. CKE, the parent company of Carl’s Jr., sued Jack In the Box over a controversial ad they ran, insinuating that Carl’s Jr.’s Angus beef burgers are actually made from “anus” beef.
- There’s no record of this lawsuit being won or tossed out
- Loss of reputation (maybe) for childish attacks against competitor
Lesson Learned: Play nice with the competition. The Internet preserves these little “mementos” from your past and they may come back to bite you in the butt (pun intended) some day—especially if you’re trying to run a reputable and trustworthy brand.
#1: Chipotle… Again
If you haven’t had time to follow the most recent Chipotle scandal, let us fill you in. This time, Chipotle is the target of a lawsuit filed by a 16-year-old employee who claims to have suffered repeated sexual harassment and assault by her supervisor and his supervising manager. In addition, the supervisor was not only promoted while he was allegedly accosting the teenager, but, when Chipotle found out, they only fired him because he lied about what happened, not because of what he did.
It didn’t take long for the jury to find the manager—who has fled to Mexico—and Chipotle corporate (the joint-employer) guilty.
- The jury awarded the employee $7.65 million
- The Houston franchisee and Chipotle corporate were both labeled as guilty parties—the franchisee because of the sexual harassment; Chipotle “for not properly supervising the conduct of its employees”
- Further loss of trust in the Chipotle brand, which has repeatedly shown over the course of the last year that they do not care about the safety of their customers or their employees
Lesson Learned: Food safety lawsuits, gender discrimination lawsuit, social media lawsuit, wrongful termination lawsuit, and now this. 2016 has been a bad year for Chipotle and is only getting worse now that this sexual harassment lawsuit has shown how little they care about anything but protecting their bottom line.
To be honest, I’m not sure if Chipotle will learn any lesson from this as they continue to deny and deflect any blame away from themselves. However, I do know that there is a major lesson that other restaurants can take away from this:
The joint-employer ruling isn’t going away, which means franchise owners need to take better care (and more control) of their franchisees.