Religion and Products Liability Square Off in New Jersey

Religion has yet to become a central element in our product liability practice.  However, with the prevalence of religion in this country, there must be somewhere we can find a spiritual product liability claim.  Maybe Georgia?  Texas, perhaps?  Try New Jersey.

Recently, in Gupta v. Asha Enterprises, No. A-3059-09T2 (N.J. Ct. App. July 18, 2011), the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court affirmed in part and reversed in part a trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of an Edison, New Jersey restaurant that allegedly served meat-filled samosas to sixteen Hindu vegetarians.  As part of an India Day celebration in 2009, the plaintiffs placed an order at the Indo-Pak restaurant for vegetarian samosas, informing the restaurant that the food was being purchased for a group of strict vegetarians.  The restaurant filled the order and assured the plaintiffs that the food did not contain meat.  After consuming some of the samosas, the plaintiffs returned the remaining samosas to the restaurant and were advised that the food was, in fact, filled with meat.  As a result, the plaintiffs claimed spiritual damage and asserted a number of causes of action against the restaurant, including product liability and breach of express warranty.  The Court found prima facie evidence of an express warranty by the restaurant employees and reversed the grant of summary judgment as to that claim.  However, the Court affirmed summary judgment on the product liability claim, holding that, while the plaintiffs were supplied the wrong product, the food was safe, edible, and fit for human consumption.  Alas, religion and products liability remain divided.

As practitioners of the Swaminarayan principles of Hinduism,the plaintiffs believe that by eating meat they “become involved in the sinful cycle of pain, injury and death on God’s creatures, and that it affects the karma and dharma, or purity of the soul.”  While the food may have been physically safe, for the plaintiffs, meat is hardly fit for human consumption.

If the plaintiffs prevail on their express warranty claim on remand, the jury may have their hands full when calculating damages.  The plaintiffs are seeking compensation for emotional distress and economic damages in connection with a purification ritual they must now undergo to cleanse themselves.  According to Swaminarayan principles, the souls of those who eat meat can never go to God after death.  What dollar amount can be placed on eternal damnation?  After violating this principle, knowingly or unknowingly, the plaintiffs must travel to the River Ganges in Haridwar, Uttranchal, India to undergo a purification ritual which can last up to 30 days.  As the Court noted, in order to be awarded consequential damages, the damages must have been foreseeable at the time of the sale.  While that might not be the case with a fast food joint, perhaps a restaurant focusing on Indian cuisine could be charged with such knowledge.

In an increasingly pluralistic society, restaurants and manufacturers cannot reasonably be expected to produce their products in accordance with the plethora of religious principles.  However, there are some express statements here that will soon be litigated. We will have to wait and see what happens.