14 Ridiculous Reasons People Sued Fast-Food Chains
Too much ice! Not enough chicken! These customers had all sorts of complaints, and they wanted the offending notable fast-food chains to hear them.
Beyond hot coffee
You can’t talk about fast-food lawsuits without talking about the most infamous of them all: the hot coffee lawsuit. In 1992, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck’s McDonald’s coffee spilled all over her when she was trying to remove the lid. It’s certainly easy to make the “Hot coffee was hot?! No way!” joke when talking about the hot coffee lawsuit, but it was a more serious matter than that criticism suggests. She suffered third-degree burns that required skin grafts, and ended up suing McDonald’s after they neglected to reimburse her $10,000 medical bills. So, despite its notoriety, it really wasn’t that ridiculous—especially when compared to these other seriously wacky and petty fast-food lawsuits. And if you want to know more about the hot coffee lawsuit, here’s how it really went down.
One of the most recent eyebrow-raising fast-food lawsuits involved sandwich juggernaut Subway. In January 2021, a California lawsuit alleged that Subway’s tuna was actually made of a “mixture of various concoctions.” The New York Times conducted a test of samples from three different Los Angeles Subway locations. The lab was unable to identify DNA from any of five different species of tuna. While the cooking process does denature the DNA of tuna, meaning that it would be harder to detect, the results are still disturbing and thrust the lawsuit onto the public stage. Subway has alleged that “there simply is no truth to the allegations.” In early June, the plaintiffs actually scaled back their claim—now they’re alleging that Subway is mislabeling the product, calling it “100 percent sustainably caught skipjack and yellowfin tuna” or “100 percent tuna” when it’s not 100 percent and might not even be those types of tuna. While another test, this time by Inside Edition, did find that New York Subway sandwiches contained real tuna, this was still some bad press for Subway—especially after a December 2020 court ruling in Ireland that determined that their bread contained too much sugar to be called “bread.”
This lawsuit involved a gnarly encounter with McDonald’s chicken nugget. In May 2020, a Palm Beach man bit into one of the breaded chicken bites only to experience a surge of pain as his tooth hit something hard. It turned out that there was a bone, just shy of an inch long, inside one of his McNuggets. He visited the dentist, learned that he had two micro-cracks in the afflicted tooth, and promptly sued McDonald’s for $1.1 million. McDonald’s is “looking into” his claim; he has insisted that McNuggets present a danger to consumers and has urged McDonald’s to recall them all. In a rather gross ironic twist, the “bone” is actually one of the four shapes that all McNuggets come in.
Prices may vary
One fast-food lawsuit targeted Taco Bell and their parent company, Yum! Brands. In September 2019, a New Jersey couple filed a lawsuit, alleging that they purchased two of Taco Bell’s “$5 Chalupa Craving Boxes” and were charged more than five dollars for each. The total for the two boxes was $12.18, before tax, to be exact. The couple was not happy about what they saw as false advertising. They requested compensation for “the time wasted driving to Taco Bell [and] the gasoline expended to drive their vehicle to the subject Taco Bell,” arguing that it was the $5 price point, advertised in a Taco Bell commercial, that “induced” them to make the trip. The case went to federal court in October, with Taco Bell spokespeople arguing that the commercial they saw contained a “prices may vary” disclaimer.
Ice ice baby
Another rather comical lawsuit targeted coffee behemoth Starbucks for the amount of ice they were putting in their drinks. The plaintiff claimed that Starbucks was loading up their drinks with almost half ice, skimping on the actual coffee. Therefore, consumers were getting far less than the amounts of coffee suggested by the advertised drink sizes. But the judge ruled that the argument held no water (so to speak). When the case was dismissed, U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson summed it up pretty well: He said that “a reasonable consumer” ordering an iced drink knows “that the drink they receive will include both ice and tea.” Go figure. A Starbucks spokesperson also claimed that their employees will happily re-prepare the drink of anyone dissatisfied with the ice-to-drink ratio. Who knew ice was one of the strange, silly things that can get you sued?!
Not so happy
Yes, this really happened: A father sued McDonald’s for marketing Happy Meals to children. You know, Happy Meals that are basically synonymous with kids’ meals. (Psst! Do you know which fast-food chain the idea of kids’ meals originates from?) It is a little more complicated than that—but not much. Antonio Bramante, a resident of Quebec, was a regular at McDonald’s, usually bringing at least one of his young children with him on his visits. His complaint? The Happy Meal advertisements were deliberately situated right at children’s eye level, with their collectible toys in full display. So his kids would naturally start begging for a Happy Meal so that they could get a new toy, and Bramante would feel “pressured” to comply—but not by his kids. By McDonald’s. Questionable parenting tactics aside, Canada does have a law prohibiting advertising to children under 13. There are exceptions for store windows, children’s magazines, and advertisements for live kid-oriented shows. Bramante claimed that McDonald’s did not count as one of these exceptions; McDonald’s claimed that it did. A Quebec judge declared the suit valid, but no ruling has been reached yet. Canada might have this advertising rule, but they’re not one of the countries that have banned McDonald’s altogether.
Here’s another of the more infamous fast-food lawsuits: the time a woman sued Wendy’s after finding a human fingertip in her bowl of chili. What sounds like one of the oft-circulated gruesome fast-food urban legends is in fact a true story. But it was not a story of a hapless customer finding a body part in her meal. The woman, Anna Ayala, had planted the fingertip in the chili herself, hoping to score some dough from the lawsuit. It was, indeed, a real fingertip; her husband’s coworker had lost his fingertip in a work accident and then willingly given the severed digit to Ayala’s husband to settle a debt. The truth really is stranger than fiction! Ayala and her husband ended up pleading guilty to conspiring to file a false claim and attempted grand theft. They both spent time in prison.
A high-steaks suit
In 2017, a Queens resident sued Dunkin’ Donuts for the contents of its Angus Steak & Egg sandwich. She apparently felt blindsided by the fact that the meat on the sandwich was a regular ol’ beef patty, not an actual cut of steak. She wanted Dunkin’ to call a steak a steak and played the classic “false advertising” card. And, to be fair, the commercials for the sandwich did make a pretty big deal about the steak component of the sandwich (though they did say it contained “angus beef” at the end). Dunkin’ argued that, since the sandwich’s ingredient list was readily available to all potential customers, they’d done nothing wrong. According to topclassactions.com, the suit also led to many in-depth discussions about the definition of the word “steak.” What a time to be alive. As of June 2019, there was still no verdict. Find out some surprising things your fast-food worker won’t tell you.
Hold the cheese
McDonald’s comes under fire again. In 2018, a couple in Fort Lauderdale sued the fast-food giant for $5 million after noticing a menu claim that they weren’t happy with. Their grievance was that, while Mickey D’s used to offer menu options for Quarter Pounders with or without cheese, the cheese-free option was no longer on the menu. And with the cheese, the sandwich cost as much as 90 cents more. The couple’s claim was that McDonald’s was hoodwinking customers into paying for cheese they didn’t want—and charging the more expensive amount even when they asked for no cheese on their burger. McDonald’s won the suit, with the ruling saying, “A Quarter Pounder with no cheese and cheese are separate and distinct products, both of which are offered for sale and can be purchased separately in McDonald’s restaurants.” Learn the truth about these popular rumors about McDonald’s.
Makes no cents
The fact that things cost different amounts of money at different locations is a fact of life. But that didn’t stop one New York woman from suing Burger King over 20 cents. Her woes sprang from the fact that a large Coke cost 89 cents at the Burger King closest to her—but she could get one for only 69 cents at a slightly farther Burger King. She sued Burger King for $100 as recompense for the extra distance she had to walk for the cheaper soda. Burger King won the suit despite not even showing up in court. For some more crazy customer stories, check out some hilarious true stories from fast-food drive-through workers.
A fruitless suit
Los Angeles resident Jason Saidian went big with his lawsuit against Krispy Kreme, suing them for five million dollars in 2016 because some of their fruit-flavored desserts did not contain real fruit. (He also argued that the Maple Bar and other maple products contained no actual maple ingredients.) He argued that, if the sign in front of a donut said “Glazed Raspberry Filled,” that donut had better contain actual raspberry—but a quick glimpse at the ingredients proved that this was not the case. To be fair to Saidian, he did do his research, arguing that some of the desserts did contain the ingredients in their name—the Glazed Lemon Donuts contained real lemon juice, for instance. He believed that this inconsistency was grounds for a lawsuit. But eventually, even he lost interest in it; the suit was voluntarily dismissed in 2017.
K-F-C you in court
In 2016, a New York woman filed a lawsuit against KFC for (guess what) false advertising. What was the issue this time? The “fill-up” chicken bucket she received was not full of chicken—despite the fact that the commercials showed a bucket overflowing with fried goodness. The commercials, she said, marketed it as enough food for an entire family. “They’re showing a bucket that’s overflowing with chicken, [but] you get half a bucket,” she told the New York Post. “It doesn’t feed the whole family.” KFC offered her a pair of gift certificates to assuage her disappointment, but she was having none of it and filed a lawsuit…only for the courts to dismiss the complaint. There is, after all, a reason fast food always looks better in commercials.
There’s something missing…
Fast-food workers aren’t perfect. Sometimes they get orders wrong. Asking for a redress of your meal is one way to handle it. Suing the offending chain is another. California resident Heather Starks took the latter route when she ordered a sandwich from Jimmy John’s whose description said it contained sprouts, only to find no sprouts. Her complaint was that “she purchased sandwiches advertised in online and in-store menus, among other places, as including sprouts, which did not in fact include sprouts,” according to WKTR News. Her use of the word “sandwiches” did make it seem like this sprouts omission happened to her more than once. Whatever the case, though, Jimmy John’s settled the matter by issuing vouchers for a free side item to anyone who claimed they, too, received a sprouts-less sandwich.
Subway’s “Five Dollar Footlong” jingle is definitely one of the better-known advertising campaigns of the 21st century. But when one person debunked it, angry customers came calling. The Australian teen who posed with a tape measure and a Subway sandwich that appeared to fall a full inch shy of its 12-inch mark probably had no intention of starting a three-plus-year lawsuit, but that’s what happened. A few different lawsuits were consolidated into one and the proceedings dragged on for years until early 2016, when Subway agreed to award $500, plus attorney fees, to each of the ten plaintiffs. And it didn’t even end there; an attorney challenged the settlement because he argued that the only ones benefitting were the lawyers, not the consumers. Here are some court cases with hilarious names you won’t believe are real.
The butt of a joke
It’s not only disgruntled consumers who sue fast-food chains. In 2007, Carl’s Jr. (or, more accurately, their parent company, CKE Restaurants) sued their competitor Jack-in-the-Box after the latter targeted the former in an ad campaign. The very mature campaign focused on the similarity of the word “Angus,” the grade of beef that chains like Carl’s Jr. advertised using in their burgers, to “anus,” implying that their burger meat came from cow butts. The commercials never specifically referenced Carl’s Jr. but instead referred to “our competitors.” Carl’s Jr. worried that their consumers would take the campaign seriously and that they would lose business. That takes being “butt-hurt” to a whole new level! The case reached a settlement, and CKE’s request for the commercials to be taken off the air was denied. You may not have heard about these fast-food lawsuits, but have you heard about the famous fast-food scandals that rocked the industry?