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You may be Sued Even if You Sell Safe Food

Your food processing company or restaurant may be sued even if it sold perfectly safe food, and even if your customers incurred no physical injury.  Recently, a New Jersey state appellate court ruled that Hindu restaurant patrons could sue a restaurant for serving them a dish containing meat, after they expressly told the staff they were strict vegetarians.

The customers claim they incurred spiritual and emotional injuries.  They seek damages to recover the cost of traveling to India to cleanse their souls.

The purpose of this posting is not to question anyone’s religious beliefs or comment on any factual support for the plaintiffs’ allegations or the restaurant’s possible defenses.

Rather, this litigation should serve as a reminder that “labels matter.”  As discussed in Kwikset v. Sup. Ct. (Benson) 51 Cal.4th 310, 330 (2011), companies that incorrectly represent that their product is, for example, Kosher, when it is not, may not cause any physical harm to a customer who follows Kosher dietary laws.  However, a customer that pays for food that a company misrepresents is Kosher likely has standing to sue the company for an economic injury based on that misrepresentation (at least in California).  It appears that the New Jersey courts are following similar reasoning in this recent case.

The takeaway message: your customers take your representations seriously, and misrepresentations can be very costly.  Just ask McDonald’s.  In 2009, it paid $10 million to resolve claims arising out of allegedly mislabeling its french fries as vegetarian, even though no plaintiff incurred any physical injury (although the company represented that “vegetarians can enjoy” its french fries, they contained beef flavoring; nonetheless, McDonald’s denied plaintiffs’ allegations).