McDonald’s Accused Of Not Making Drive-Thrus Accessible to the Blind

Be it hot coffee or greasy french fries, McDonald’s often finds itself as a defendant in some intriguing litigation. A new lawsuit filed in an Illinois federal court against the fast food giant might just take the crown as the most interesting. According to a report from the Chicago Tribune, a Louisiana man has sued McDonald’s because its drive-thrus are not accessible to the blind. Specifically, the man has challenged McDonald’s policy of not serving individuals who walk up to the drive-thru window without a car. During the normal operating hours, the prohibition is hardly a problem as customers without cars can simply walk inside the restaurant. However, after hours, the restaurant only serves customers through the drive-thru and, thus, people who do not have cars or otherwise cannot drive, such as blind persons, cannot order from McDonalds, the suit alleges. According to the suit, such failure to accommodate constitutes a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

We here at Abnormal Use are not certain as to how this McDonald’s policy will be construed under the ADA. We do have some questions, however, as to certain statements the plaintiff’s lawyer made about the litigation. In commenting on the suit, attorney Roberto Luis Costales stated that the late-night snacks are a “quintessentially American activity that should not be denied to someone because of their disability.” Moreover, he indicated, “This is something simple that can cause a lot of hurt to disabled people, especially if, like [Plaintiff], they cannot cook for themselves.” We must admit that we, too, have been known to take a late night food run, particularly during our college days. But, we question whether it is a “quintessential American activity,” so ingrained in our nation’s DNA that it cannot be denied. Maybe if we were talking about a more critical issue like healthcare, we could take this rhetoric seriously.

Costales claims that McDonald’s could remedy the situation by installing a phone to allow customers to call in orders from outside and have the orders brought out to the customers. However, this proposal ignores the primary purpose of the late night drive-thru-only policy in the first place – security. If McDonald’s is going to be bringing orders out to customers, it might as well just open the restaurant in the first place. Or, maybe that is the end goal of the master plan and the lawsuit is just the mechanism of delivery.


Plaintiff Strikes Gold With New Adulterated Food Case

Over the years, we here at Abnormal Use have reported on a number of lawsuits involving foreign objects in food. While the contaminate may differ, most of these lawsuits are alike in one respect. Typically, the plaintiffs claim very minimal medical expenses but allege a whole lot of alleged emotional trauma. As a result, it is often difficult to assess damages in these food cases. While it is difficult to quantify emotional trauma, a new food case in Illinois may set the gold standard for questionable damages cases.  According to a report from the Madison Record, Elmo Kane of Tilden, Illinois, has filed suit against General Mills after discovering a gold tooth in his Pillsbury biscuit. Kane alleges that after opening and baking a can of Pillsbury Grands Southern Style Biscuits, he took a bite of one of the biscuits and “bit into someone else’s gold tooth.” Thereafter, he immediately placed the can and the tooth into a plastic bag. While the report is silent on the issue, we assume his next step was to his lawyer’s office. As a result of the incident, Kane alleges that he sustained mental anguish, disability, medical expenses, lost wages and earning capacity, and prevention from attending to usual affairs and duties.

We know very little about the basis of Kane’s damages claims. Nonetheless, we are naturally skeptical. While we can appreciate the disgust of discovering a foreign object in one’s food, we seriously question whether a gold tooth caused disability, a loss of earning capacity, and a prevention from attending to usual affairs. Because he didn’t swallow the tooth, we assume his medical expenses are limited to a trip to the dentist’s office at to check on a chipped tooth. Unless, of course, he is so traumatized by the experience that he has been in constant psychological or psychiatric care.

While we could go on ad nauseam about our skepticism, the real intriguing point of this case is that Kane has already been compensated for his loss. After all, didn’t Kane strike gold when he bit into that biscuit? Out of all the foreign objects found in food, Kane discovered one of the few containing precious metals.  Even though gold teeth are not 100 percent pure, with gold selling at more than $1,100 an ounce, Kane is bound to put some money in his pocket. Particularly, when that gold tooth is kept pure in a nice plastic bag.

Is There A Duty To Test A Chicken McNugget?

A Chicago man recently filed a lawsuit against McDonald’s to recover damages incurred after he allegedly bit into a chicken nugget which contained shards of bone. Lawsuits over objects in food which are not supposed to be there are common, so no surprise there.  The interesting part is that the man has reportedly joined a cause of action for failure to test the chicken nugget:

The suit contends that McDonald’s employees failed to inspect and test the Chicken McNugget in question for bone fragments prior to serving it to Anderson.

This is where he is going to lose those initially sympathetic to his cause. How does one test a chicken nugget for bone shards before serving it to the customer? Is McDonald’s supposed to use the x-ray machine that TSA uses at the airport? Is there a chicken nugget bone shard test kit that we don’t know about?

On a personal note, I know that I have been using this purported duty to test for a while now to trick my daughter. I make her a sandwich, then tell her that I need to take a bite first to make sure it’s not poisoned. It works every time, probably because she is three. I’ve been concerned that any day now she’s going to detect the ruse and I won’t be able to perpetrate the scheme any longer. However, if this suit goes anywhere, I may be forced to continue to take a test bite of every sandwich before serving it . . . for liability reasons . . . .

$40 Million Settlement Over Junk Advertisements

If there’s something people pretty much unanimously hate, it’s junk mail and telemarketing.  So if you are going to get into the business of unsolicited advertising, it is probably a good idea to make sure you know the ins-and-outs of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) and other applicable federal laws.  Interline Brands Inc., who allegedly sent out improper fax advertisements from 2007 to 2011, is learning this lesson the hard way after paying $40 million to settle claims against it.

The TCPA and the Junk Fax Act prohibit sending unsolicited advertisements to any fax machine unless the recipients have “established business relationship” with the sender.  Even where there is an established business relationship, any fax advertisements must have opt-out provisions. The TCPA gives private citizens the right to sue and recover the greater of actual monetary damages or $500 in damages for each junk fax.  That $500 dollars can add up quickly.

The lawsuit filed against Interline Brands was a class action suit that started by the Craftwood Lumber Company in Illinois.  The complaint (available here) alleged that Interline Brands sent out 735,000 facsimile transmissions in direct violation of federal law.  The transmissions allegedly included advertisements that did not comply with the TCPA opt-out notice requirements.  Although Interline Brand has settled the lawsuit against it for $40 million, it has denied any wrongdoing.

The Coming Ebola Litigation?

Ever since the United States experienced its first Ebola death, uncertainty looms over the proper way to contain the virus and the appropriate measures that governments should take to prevent an outbreak.  Three states, New Jersey, New York and Illinois, have imposed quarantines on anyone arriving with a “high risk” of having contracted Ebola in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.  Kaci Hickox, a nurse who volunteered to help with Ebola patients in Sierra Leone, was quarantined upon her return to the U.S.  According to Hickox, she exhibited no symptoms of the disease and found herself to be otherwise completely healthy.  The White House has expressed concerns over the quarantine policies, arguing that the quarantine policies are not grounded in science and reiterating that Ebola is difficult to catch.

We may have the opportunity to see this saga play out in the courtroom, as Hickox has indicated that she plans to file suit on the basis that the quarantine violated her Constitutional rights.  According to Hickox’s lawyer: “She’s fine. She’s not sick . . . . She went and did a magnanimous thing and deserves to be treated with respect and dignity, not put in isolation because some political leaders decided it looks good to do that.” It will be interesting to see how this plays out if Hickox does file suit.  Regardless of the outcome, the legal industry should be prepared to deal with Ebola-related issues.  International law firm Reed Smith, has announced the formation of a Global Ebola Task Force, and more firms will likely follow suit.

On a related note, an interesting article examining medical malpractice-based Ebola lawsuits against the backdrop of Texas “tort reform” litigation is located here.

Pharmaceutical Companies Sued Over Marketing Of Pain Killers

Painkiller abuse has  become a big problem in the past decade, and now, three governmental entities are seeking to hold pharmaceutical companies responsible.  The City of Chicago and two California counties have filed separate lawsuits alleging that “aggressive marketing” by several pharmaceutical companies has purportedly led to addiction and abuse of painkillers by their taxpayers.  The named defendants are Jansen Pharmaceuticals, Purdue Pharma, Actavis, Endo Health Solutions Inc., and Cephalon. The core allegation in these suits is that the companies fraudulently downplayed the known risks of painkiller addiction in their marketing materials, which allegedly misled the public and led physicians to overprescribe the drugs.  This conduct allegedly costs taxpayers and the government millions of dollars in the form of unnecessary prescriptions and emergency medical care.  The City of Chicago’s complaint alleges that in Chicago alone there were over 1,000 ER visits attributable to painkiller abuse in 2009.

These lawsuits are an interesting attempt to regulate, through litigation, what is already one of the most heavily regulated industries in the United States.  Matters relating to prescription drugs typically fall under the jurisdiction of the FDA.  Moreover, federal laws and regulations already require that pharmaceutical promotional materials must be supported by substantial scientific evidence and must reflect a “fair balance” in describing the benefits and risks of the drugs.  See, e.g., 21 U.S.C. 352(a); 21 C.F.R. 201(e)(g).

Not surprisingly, the pharmaceutical companies are already angling to dismiss these lawsuits.  Earlier this month, they moved to dismiss the City of Chicago’s complaint on, among other grounds,  the ground that this matter should be decided by the FDA under the primary jurisdiction doctrine.  The primary jurisdiction doctrine is a judicial doctrine whereby a court tends to favor allowing an agency an initial opportunity to decide an issue in a case in which the court and the agency have concurrent jurisdiction.

Chicago Cubs File Suit to Stop Rogue Cub

Billy Cub

Reportedly, the Chicago Cubs have filed suit against five individuals responsible for the “billy cub” mascot, which has interacted with fans around Wrigley field for the past seven years in exchange for tips.  Billy Club has no actual affiliation with the Chicago Cubs organization.  Apparently, the litigation was sparked by a bar fight between Billy Cub and a bar patron.  The incident drew extensive publicity after a video of the altercation was posted to YouTube.  According to witnesses, the video showed only a small portion of the harassment that Billy Cub had been receiving from the fan prior to the incident, and the removal of the head was the last straw.  So, why can’t the Cubs give Billy Cub a pass? According to the Cubs, this is not the first time Billy Club has acted mischievously.  The Cubs allege that Billy Cub has a history of bad behavior, including swearing and using racial slurs in connection with bad tips received from fans. So what do the Cubs want a court to do?  Among other things, they have asked that the Billy Cub mascot outfit be delivered for destruction. Delivered for destruction? How about that?

Seventh Circuit Rejects Claim Based On Overheating Laptop Power Adapter

Okay, surely we all know not to fall asleep next to computer equipment that is plugged in and powering up, right?  No? Well, let’s talk about Ferraro v. Hewlett-Packard Co., 721 F.3d 842 (7th Cir. 2013). In that case, the Plaintiff fell asleep next to her laptop, and as she slept, she allegedly suffered injuries because the laptop’s power adapter allegedly overheated (as she slept). Of course, she sued.

In the interests of fairness, here are the specific facts as recited by the Seventh Circuit itself:

[W]hile sitting on her sofa and using her laptop, she noticed that the battery was running low. Ferraro shut down the laptop, placed it on a nearby coffee table, and plugged the laptop’s power cord into the wall. Midway along the cord is the power adapter, a brick-shaped plastic device housing a transformer, which converts AC electricity from the outlet into DC electricity used by the laptop. Ferraro propped the power adapter on the arm of her sofa, began reading a book, and fell asleep around 10:00 p.m.

At some point during the night, the power adapter slipped from the sofa’s arm, falling between the cushions. As Ferraro slept, the exposed skin of her right forearm came to rest against one of the adapter’s surfaces. It is unclear how long Ferraro’s skin was in direct contact with the adapter, but she eventually awoke with painful blisters at the point of contact.

“Slipped from the sofa’s arm,” eh? As you might expect, her claims were of the typical design defect, failure to warn, and breach of implied warranty of merchantability variety. As the court described it, the Plaintiff “alleged that the laptop was defectively designed because it ‘overheat[ed] during normal and foreseeable use’ and that it lacked ‘adequate or sufficient warnings.'” The district court granted summary judgment for the manufacturer, but the Seventh Circuit affirmed only begrudgingly (and not without great sympathy for the Plaintiff). On the design defect claim, the Seventh Circuit noted:

[L]aptops are designed precisely to be used in comfortable places, including sofas, beds, La–Z–Boys, or other places where people may nod off. By taking such a restricted view of the precise manner in which Ferraro’s harm materialized, the court sidestepped the undisputed fact that, at the time of her injury, Ferraro was using the power adapter to do just what it was designed to do: charge her laptop. Ferraro is not arguing that the power adapter overheated when she tried to use it to heat her blanket, or that it made for a poor drink coaster or paperweight; rather, she asserts that it was unreasonably dangerous when used for its intended purpose.

Well, we’re not sure that laptop chargers are designed to be placed precariously on the arm of a sofa upon which its user may ultimately fall asleep while undertaking another tasks altogether on said sofa (i.e., reading a book). The charger, of course, charges, but the user of the charger must surely consider where the charger is placed prior to using it, no? The Seventh Circuit had an answer for that, as well:

HP may be correct that Ferraro was not using the product in the precise manner intended by the manufacturer, insofar as the power adapter was designed to rest on a flat surface with ample ventilation, but this is beside the point. The appropriate inquiry for the consumer-expectations test is whether the product performed as safely as an ordinary consumer would expect when used in =an intended or reasonably foreseeable manner. The great virtue of a laptop is that it can be used on one’s lap, while sitting on a sofa, or perhaps while in bed. Indeed, we note that the Facebook page for “Using the laptop in bed” (Mission: “Public awareness of the usage of laptops in bed”) has nearly one million “Likes.” Our analysis would be no different if the power adapter had started a fire in the sofa while Ferraro was in the next room; in either case, the consumer’s use of the product would be the same. A jury could conclude that Ferraro was using the power adapter in a “reasonably foreseeable” manner when the relevant harm occurred.

(Quotations and citations omitted).

A Facebook group cited as persuasive authority? Really? How did that end up in the opinion? Take a look at that Facebook page and you’ll see the danger of citing to unofficial Facebook groups as authority. (Now, perhaps we would feel differently if the Facebook group were entitled “Precariously placing a laptop charger on the arm of a sofa while sleeping,” but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.).

Okay, so here’s the question: With such sympathy for the Plaintiff coming from the court, how did the defendant prevail? I mean, how does the defendant come back from that type of commentary?

A fatal appellate error, that’s how. Behold the following remarks made by the Seventh Circuit at the very beginning of its opinion in this matter:

The court concluded that Ferraro would be unable to show that the power adapter was “unreasonably dangerous,” a required element of her design defect claim. Under Illinois law, there are two alternative methods of establishing that element: the “consumer-expectations test” or the “risk-utility test.” The district court found Ferraro’s evidence insufficient to meet her burden under either one of them. On appeal, Ferraro argues that the district court erred only in concluding that she would be unable to prove unreasonable dangerousness under the consumer-expectations test. She has not challenged the district court’s determination that HP was entitled to summary judgment under the risk-utility test, nor has she appealed the district court’s dismissal of her defective warning and implied warranty claims. This puts her in an impossible bind. Under Illinois law, the risk-utility test “trumps” in design defect cases if the two methods of establishing unreasonable dangerousness yield conflicting results. Because the district court’s finding that she could not succeed under the risk-utility test furnished an independent and unchallenged ground for the decision, we affirm.

Oh, well.

Illinois Federal Court Compels Production of Plaintiffs’ Facebook Data

From a very recent court opinion: “Postings on Facebook and other social media present a unique challenge for courts, due to their relative novelty and their ability to be shared by or with someone besides the original poster. Nonetheless, a court may compel production of a party’s Facebook information if the party seeking disclosure makes a threshold relevance showing.”

You think? Well, sometimes, but not always. Traditional discovery rules and jurisprudence remains helpful in such inquiries.

The quote above is from Higgins v. Koch Development Corp.,  No. 3:11–CV–81–RLY–WGH (S.D. Ind. July 5, 2013).

Note: That opinion was released on July 5, which was a Friday, if you recall.  Someone didn’t take a three day weekend, apparently.

The fact of the case were these: In 2009, the Plaintiff’s visited a water amusement park.  One of the attractions at the park, the “Bahari River,” had  “muratic acid and liquid bleach filtered into the water by a filter pump that was connected to a breaker.”  The Plaintiffs alleged that they suffered toxic chemical injuries and pulmonary problems as a result of improper maintenance of the filters and pumps.

At their depositions, the Plaintiffs confirmed the existence of their Facebook pages (of which defense counsel was no doubt previously aware).  Interestingly, the Plaintiffs agreed to capture and preserve their complete profile history using the “Download Your Information” function (although they apparently did not produce this information to the defense, which prompted a motion to compel).  The opinion does not reveal when they actually preserved the information – whether it be in the deposition room itself or sometime later. In refusing to produce the Facebook data, the Plaintiffs invoked the traditional arguments (overbreadth, irrelevance) but also argued that the production of the data would violate the privacy rights of non-parties whose images became part of the Plaintiffs’ profiles via tagging.

The court quickly disposed of the relevance objection, noting that the specific claims made by the Plaintiffs in the lawsuit made the information contained on their social media profiles relevant indeed.  As the court observed, “Koch claims that [Plaintiffs’] Facebook content may reveal relevant information as to the extent their injuries have impacted their enjoyment of life, ability to engage in outdoor activities, and employment, along with their claims regarding permanent injuries, lack of pre-existing symptoms, and impairment of future earnings capacity. Since the extent of [Plaintiffs’] losses in these areas directly impacts the appropriate damages award, the court finds this information relevant.” No surprise there, especially if the Plaintiffs used Facebook as much as the opinion suggested they do.

Sophisticated as to Facebook’s privacy settings, the Plaintiffs also claimed the request violated their privacy rights (as they had made their profiles as private as Facebook allows them to be).  This is argument, of course, is particularly weak, as Plaintiffs clearly put their lifestyles at issue in bringing the suit and alleging those damages, and thus, the mere fact that they have shielded relevant data using Facebook’s privacy settings does not relieve them of an obligation to produce relevant information.  In rejecting Plaintiffs’ argument on these grounds, the court noted that Plaintiffs “cite[d] no cases supporting the proposition that setting a Facebook profile to ‘private’ entitles a person to a greater expectation of privacy or can act as a shield to discovery.”

This, of course, leaves us with the most interesting argument Plaintiffs made: that the request violated the privacy of non-parties. You’ve got to give the Plaintiffs’ lawyers points for creativity on that one. Essentially, Plaintiffs argued that their friends – other Facebook users – posted comments on Plaintiffs’ Facebook walls or appeared on Plaintiffs’ Facebook timeline by being tagged in photographs or posts in which Plaintiffs were also tagged.  Unpersuaded, the court characterized this argument as “unfounded,” citing another court which had already reached the conclusion that tagged photographs are discoverable if relevant because “once the plaintiff was tagged in the photos, they became in the plaintiff’s “possession, custody, or control.”

Clearly, this is the right result.  In light of the resistance the Plaintiffs exhibited in producing these profiles, we suspect there is some good impeachment available for the defense to find.

Five Hours of Energy, No Crash?

Earlier this year, 5-Hour Energy manufacturer Innovation Ventures LLC d/b/a Living Essentials was hit with a series of class action lawsuits alleging that its claims of increased energy without the subsequent “crash” were false. Innovation subsequently moved to dismiss those suits. Last week, the manufacturer found out that it must continue litigating at least one of those suits after a Florida federal judge denied its motion.

At issue in these cases is 5-Hour Energy’s product statement, “Hours of energy now – No crash later.” As self-proclaimed coffee connoisseurs, we are a little too old fashioned to know the effectiveness of an energy drink’s claim. Apparently, enough consumers to organize into three putative classes think the product statement is a bit of a stretch.

In one of the suits, Guarino v. Innovation Ventures LLC, d/b/a Living Essentials, No. 13-cv-00101-GPM-PMF (S.D. Illinois 2013), the plaintiffs allege that the product statement “is not true, as admitted on the Defendant’s website and hidden behind the bottles in the display, which reads: ‘No crash means no sugar crash.’” So Innovation is falsely advertising a product by placing true statements on its website and directly on the bottle? Now we see why Innovation filed those motions to dismiss in the first place.

While its motion to dismiss may have been denied, Innovation may still ultimately prevail in this suit. Pleading sufficient allegations to survive a motion to dismiss does not necessarily make a good case. Unfortunately for Innovation, it now must embroil itself in hours of litigation defending the case. For their sake, let’s hope there is no awful crash afterwards.