Monday, September 25, 2006

"WE Deserve A Break... Don't We?"

Remember the old McDonald's advertising campaign, "You deserve a break today"? The fine folks at Mickey D's are probably wishing they could get a break today: the company is in the news. Twice. In lawsuits. As a defendant. As if being sued for serving hot coffee wasn't bad enough, right?

The McStrip-search Case (or, "You wanna get nekkid with that?")

In the first case, we have yet another "strip search" scam - a person purporting to be either a law enforcement officer or a high-ranking corporate officer - calls a fast-food restaurant, and tells the manager that an employee -- invariably female -- is involved in some sort of criminal activity. The caller directs the manager to to search the "suspect", in a progressively intrusive manner.

In this case, the caller claimed to be a senior manager of the local McDonald's franchisee. The court record shows he called collect, and used the name of an actual manager in the company.

During the trial, a private investigator was to testify that between 50 and 70 similar strip-search hoaxes has been perpetrated against fast-food joints since 1999 (the investigator was not allowed to testify). The attorney for the McDonald's corporation acknowledged that 12 to 14 of the incidents specifically targeted McDonald's.

The crux of the plaintiff's case is that both McDonald's and the franchisee were (or should have been) aware of the previous scams, and failed to protect her properly. McDonald's says that the franchisee was made aware of the scam in 1999 and again in 2001; additionally, theMcDonald's training manual for franchisees bans strip searches of employees or customers. The franchisee, however, claims they were not made aware of the previous scams until after the lawsuit was filed. A U.S. District Court judge granted a summary judgment for McDonald's, but let the case against the franchisee go ahead. In an earlier case invol;ving a similar situation, another judge also gave McDonald's a pass.

Nightline or one of those shows did a program on a similar case last year. That case involved a caller claiming to be a police officer.

As a former cop, I can pass along this useful information:

  1. The cops will not call you collect. The police department is perfectly willing to run up its own phone bill.
  2. The cops will not ask someone else to do their job for them (especially if the job involves strip-searching an attractive young lady). The potential liability issues for the cops would scare any cop, plus whatever evidence was obtained in this manner would be inadmissible.

This scam has been around for at least seven years. You'd think that all the restaurant chains would have made these scams known to all their employees and franchisees, if for no other reason than to head off negative publicity like this.

Part of the reason the McDonald's corporation was removed from the case was that the plaintiff was not able to prove that McDonald's breached any legally-recognized contract to protect her; additionally, the corporate attorney who acknowledged the other scams targeting McDonald's claimed those incidents were too remote in time and place to give McDonald's effective notice of the problem.

If I were the chairman of McDonald's, I would make damned sure that every corporate employee, every franchisee, and every franchisee's employee was made aware of this scam. It produces bad publicity for the company (and the franchisee), plus McDonald's will eventually run into a judge who'll say something along the lines of, "this has happened x number of times, and you're still claiming you know nothing about it? I don't think so."

[The information for this part was drawn from reports of the arguments in U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 11th District. The arguments were heard on September 15.]

The McFlab Case (or, "you wanna supersize your gut with that?")

The second case involves an on-going lawsuit in New York, against McDonald's. This time, it's a case of parents blaming false and misleading advertising (implying that McDonald's was a healthy meal choice) for leaving kids fat and unhealthy. A U.S Circuit Court of Appeals judge in New York refused to throw out the case, saying the plaintiffs had provided enough specific examples of allegedly misleading advertising to allow the case to go to trial.

McDonald's and other fast-food chains (many of the chains are facing similar lawsuits) claim these cases are just further examples of Americans blaming others for their own bad habits (a claim I happen to think is justified... but false and misleading advertising is never justified).

The case was initially dismissed (twice) by the judge; the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit restored several parts of the second (amended) complaint, allegations that McDonald's:
  • created the false impression that "its food was nutritionally beneficial and part of a healthy lifestyle if consumed daily";
  • failed to disclose the use of additives that made the food less healthy than represented;
  • acted decptively when it said it would provide nutritional information to consumers.

I've pointed this out in the past - if you are so concerned about health food, get a clue: McDonald's ain't health food. Neither is Burger King, Wendy's, Arby's, Roy Rogers, Popeye's, Hardee's, Friendly's, Big Boy, Steak & Shake, Denny's... NONE of them. I don't care who you talk to, no one with any sense is going to claim that burgers, fries and soda will "help build strong bodies twelve ways" (and yes, Wonder Bread had to stop saying that after they got sued back in the 70's).

If you want your kids to eat healthy, cook for them yourself.

Similarly, a couple of years back, some Hindu sued McDonald's, claiming his religious beliefs were violated when McDonald's served him fries that had been cooked in grease that contained beef by-products. Again, if your religious beliefs prohibit you from eating beef, don't go to a burger joint, idiot.

In summary, it appears McDonald's got out of the first case through sheer luck (but they'd better get on the ball before the next pervert tries the same scam). The second case is a perfect example of why the trial-by-jury system actually works (since, all my bitching to the contrary notwithstanding, it really does work, at least most of the time) - did the parents rely on false and misleading advertising, or are they just blaming a "deep-pockets" corporation for their own failures? If the advertising is, in fact, found to be false, McDonald's should pay (and pay big); on the other hand, if the jury sides with McDonald's, the plaintiff should bear the entire cost of the corporation's defense.

Just as an aside: for more information on stupid/needless/retaliatory lawsuits, check out the "Stella Awards" newsletter (named after the gal who sued McDonald's for the hot coffee). It's produced by Randy Cassingham, who also is responsible for "This Is True", a compedium of incomprehensible actions gathered from around the world. He's got a couple of other good sites, too. None of the information in this post came from Cassingham's newsletters; it's just I think he deserves a plug for his efforts.

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