Would you like fries with that lawsuit?

Almost two years ago, I wrote an article dedicated to the absurdity of Veronica and Darrin Martin (“Keep stupidity out of American court system,” Oct. 18, 2000). This couple from Knoxville, Tenn., earned their 15 seconds of fame when they brought a lawsuit against the McDonald’s corporation after a pickle allegedly fell out of Mrs. Martin’s sandwich, landed on her chin and burned her.

Her husband was also a plaintiff in the lawsuit, seeking $15,000 for “losing the services and consortium of his wife.” He claimed he received less than he would have liked due to this tragic pickle mishap.

That’s right, folks, a pickle. And this is just one of hundreds of senseless lawsuits bogging down our justice system as many of our fellow Americans try their hand at what is becoming the latest get-rich-quick scheme.

Back then, I suggested we look at ourselves and take some personal responsibility for our actions. I suggested we accept that not everything in this life is going to go how we’d like it. In short, I asked we accept that, sometimes, pickles happen.

Now, a year later, it seems our litigious society has not evolved, but degenerated. Consider the present case of Caesar Barber. Barber, a maintenance worker from New York, has recently filed a lawsuit in the Bronx Supreme Court stating that fast food – specifically McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s and KFC – are responsible for his glut of health problems.

The lawsuit states Barber ate at the four establishments for several decades because of their price and efficiency until his doctor told him all the burgers and chicken could have negative effects on his health.

To be fair, Barber’s health problems are pretty severe. At the age of 56, he stands 5 foot 10 and weighs 272 pounds. In addition to the heart attacks he had in 1996 and 1999, Barber also suffers from diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. According to Barber, there is no genetic history of any of these ailments in his family history.

Thus, he blames the four restaurants listed as being responsible for his current health problems, declaring, “The fast food industry wrecked my life.” Barber is also quoted as saying, “They said ‘100 percent beef.’ I thought that meant it was good for you” (which doesn’t really explain how KFC got thrown into the pot).

In case you’re the one other person in the entire world who
didn’t know fast food was bad for you, let me officially clear it up: Fast food is bad for you. After all, you can’t just march into the local GNC and pick up a Whopper, can you? Everyone already knows fast food is bad for you. And somewhere not too deep down inside, I believe Barber knows this as well.

Even if it weren’t blatantly obvious that fast food is devoid of any nutritional value, the four chains Barber indicts have been providing information on the nutrition in their products – or the lack thereof – for years. Fast food companies can only present the information to us; it is our own personal responsibility to read such information and stay informed about what we choose to put in our mouths.

We could also spend time debating the role of personal responsibility in this situation. After all, isn’t it really our own decision whether or not to pull up to the drive-thru and Super-Size? Greasy, fattening sandwiches still need someone to peel back their wrapper, just as bottles need someone to open them, guns need someone to pull the trigger and cigarettes need someone to light up and inhale. It’s all a personal decision!

Yet, I believe the issue here with individuals such as Barber isn’t one that should invoke questions of personal responsibility, but rather that of greed. Supposed victims in cases such as these are not as stupid as they sound; in fact, I believe they’re quite clever. When you look at the legal battle before Barber, what does he really have to lose? He files a suit in court where, if he wins, he walks away with a giant payoff, and if he loses, what has he wasted? First of all, it costs him little to nothing to file the suit in the first place. Secondly, his lawyer is practically free-of-charge, as he most likely doesn’t get paid unless his client wins. The only thing Barber can lose is his time.

The lawyer, Samuel Hirsch, has little to lose as well. Even when this case has been thrown out of court, the sheer notoriety of it will be worth his time – just in the free advertising! Would people have known the name Samuel Hirsch if he hadn’t taken this outrageous case?

The fact is, lawyers can more easily achieve infamy than fame. There are few actual cases of the Erin Brokovich Hollywood romance genre, where a lawyer stands up for the little guy against the big, faceless corporate polluters. More numerous are the preposterous cases, where, if fame cannot be achieved, at least the lawyer can achieve notoriety.

Frivolous lawsuits are a disgrace to our justice system. What’s worse, the costs incurred by these lawsuits are passed down to the consumer; that’s right, we are paying, quite literally, for this person’s idiocy. If we truly want to clean up the court system and prevent these frivolous lawsuits, then penalties have to be imposed for abusing our justice system. For example, in the aforementioned case, make the plaintiff, Barber, pay the defendant’s court costs if the case is thrown out of court.

After all, why should the defendants be forced to pay for legal expenses when the case against them is as empty of merit as French fries are of nutrition? Why should these fast food businesses have to pay to defend themselves against ridiculous lawsuits, when the fact fast food is bad for you is common

knowledge to everyone else in the entire world?

As the legal rules exist now, if Barber loses, he walks away wasting nothing but the time he invested. Yet, if he wins, he most likely snares a payday in the millions. Talk about a something-for-nothing situation; in fact, he probably has a better chance of winning this lawsuit than he does the lottery.

The rules must be changed so individuals like Barber are faced with the chance of having to reimburse the defendant’s legal fees. Then, if the case is thrown out of court – thus creating a chance that he might really lose instead of just not win – it’s mighty unlikely he’d roll the dice in court, trying to score some easy money.

Such policy would rub out the hundreds of frivolous cases every year that gum up our court system and make it more efficient – without stifling the independent voices that have legitimate complaints. It would enable our justice system to work as it should, focusing its energies and resources on the important cases, without having to waste its time on cases where some guy, during decades of fast food consumption, never bothered to look over the counter to see his burger and fries bathing in grease.

Instead, courts could hear the legitimate cases, without having to waste their time on the baseless. We don’t need to expand our justice system; we don’t need more lawyers. A condensed, highly efficient court system would do just fine; there is no need to Super-Size it.


Chris Schafer’s column appears biweekly. He welcomes comments at [email protected] Send letters to the editor to [email protected]