18 Of The Most Interesting Food Lawsuits Of All Time

From Subway's "tuna" to McDonald's hot coffee, consumers and brands are always battling it out in court.

Over the years, we've discovered that major food and drink companies are seemingly always lawyering up and heading for the courts. Perhaps it all started with the McDonald's hot coffee case, which was derided at the time as a frivolous consumer lawsuit but was actually, as we later learned, a legitimate legal action against the company's alleged negligence (more on that later). Regardless of your feelings on the details of that case, in the years since we've seen lawsuits that span the length of the litigious spectrum.

There are certain brands that seem to have set themselves up to be a target—we're looking at you and your tuna, Subway!—while other companies aren't afraid to go on the offensive and so some suing themselves. Either way, these cases have helped steer the course of history. Here are 18 of the most intriguing lawsuits brought against food and beverage brands.

McDonald’s sued for its hot coffee

Whenever "lawsuits" and "fast food" are brought up in the same sentence, 99% of the time this is the case being cited: Liebeck v. McDonald's, a 1994 case in which a 79-year-old woman sustained third-degree burns when her McDonald's coffee spilled in her lap during a drive-thru visit. The incident led to an eight-day hospital stay, skin grafts, and more; all told, recovery took two years. Liebeck sought $20,000 from McDonald's to pay for these injuries, since the chain's coffee was being held at scalding temps at least 30 degrees above average. McDonald's, however, countered with an $800 settlement offer. She took the company to court.


During the trial it was revealed that at least 700 other McDonald's customers had complained to the company about the coffee temps in the previous decade, claiming to have suffered burns from it, and McDonald's never did anything about it. Ultimately, the jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages; the parties ended up settling for an amount less than $500,000, according to the American Museum of Tort Law.

Barilla pasta sued for false advertising

Does pasta taste better if it's made in Italy? Some customers think so, and they're willing to pay more for it. That's why pasta manufacturer Barilla got embroiled in a class action lawsuit: customers were upset with Barilla's slogan, "Italy's No. 1 brand of pasta," when the pasta (at least the stuff Americans purchase) isn't produced anywhere near Italy.


Barilla's slogan, the lawsuit claims, is false advertising, and completely at odds with the fact that its pasta is manufactured in the United States. It's made in both Ames, Iowa, and Avon, New York, as listed on Barilla's own website. Barilla was indeed founded in Parma, Italy, by Pietro Barilla in 1877, and the company is still headquartered there today.

"The most recent decision in the ongoing legal matter simply reflects the Court's early conclusion that the lawsuit can proceed," a Barilla spokesperson told The Takeout via email back in October. "Barilla remains committed to vigorously defend against these unfounded claims, as the wording on the box clearly states: 'Made in the U.S.A. with U.S.A. and imported ingredients.' We're very proud of the brand's Italian heritage, the company's Italian know-how, and the quality of our pasta in the U.S. and globally."


Canada Dry sued for ginger content of ginger ale

Canadian man Victor Cardoso and his family had been drinking Canada Dry ginger ale for the health benefits of ginger, but they didn't taste any ginger, so he sued. Despite the bottles labeling that says "Made with Real Ginger," Cardoso's lawyer, Mark Canofari, argued that this is misleading.


"They do buy actual ginger, but then what they do is they boil it in ethanol, and that essentially destroys any nutritional or medicinal benefits," Canofari said. "One drop fills 70 cans [...] and a drop is .05 ml. So that's how little, even of the concentrate, is actually in one drink."

After 20 months of legal wrangling, the lawsuit was settled for $200,000, but Canada Dry Mott's (the Canadian division of Canada Dry's manufacturer Keurig Dr. Pepper) stated it "expressly denies liability and is not required to change its product labelling or advertising for products marketed in Canada." Half of the money went to the attorneys involved, and Cardoso and another plaintiff took $1,500 each. The rest was donated to a nonprofit.


Cracker Barrel sued for cup of chemicals

After serving a man a glass full of chemicals instead of a drink, Cracker Barrel finally had to pay for its mistake earlier this year. A jury in Marion County, Tennessee ordered the restaurant chain to pay a customer $9.4 million in damages after a long, drawn-out legal battle sparked by an incident that happened in April of 2014.


A man named William Cronnon was dining at a Cracker Barrel and was served a glass of liquid which he thought was ice water. Unfortunately after taking a sip and feeling a burning sensation in his mouth and throat, Cronnon came to find out that he had been served a chemical called Eco-San. This chemical was being used to clean the kitchen at the time.

The legal process overall is a long one, considering the original incident happened eight years ago, but interestingly, it took the jury only 40 minutes to deliberate and deliver its verdict. The jury awarded compensatory damages of $4.3 million and then came back 10 minutes later and awarded $5 million in punitive damages.

Obviously, the verdict rubbed Cracker Barrel the wrong way, because a media relations representative for the company emailed CNN and stated, "While we have great respect for the legal process, we are obviously disappointed by and strongly disagree with the jury's award in this case, which involved an unfortunate and isolated incident that occurred at one of our stores eight years ago."


Fake food festivals sued for... being fake

Chicago food-fest lovers were let down in 2018 after purchasing tickets to a series of fraudulent festivals, including a nonexistent bacon fest, crab fest, and taco fest. The Illinois attorney general sued the festival promoter, Kristen Yvette Martin, for essentially orchestrating the Fyre Festival, but for food.


Martin promoted these fictional events on Facebook and other social media outlets, "selling hundreds of tickets for those and other nonevents over the past two years, scamming customers out of more than $30,000," according to the lawsuit. For a Crab Fest in Grayslake, Illinois, Martin even paid a deposit fee, but never followed through with the permit process.

In unintentionally funny testimony, one of the taco fest hopefuls who bought two tickets to a festival that never materialized said: "I love tacos. That was my first weakness." (Other non-happening events included a "World Famous Crab N' Beer Fest," a "Hot Garlic Crab Feed," and a "Skull Run.")

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan straight up called these fraudulent events the act of "scammers," hence the lawsuit, which "seeks to prevent Martin from promoting such future fictitious events in Illinois and to impose a penalty of $50,000 for each deceptive act and an additional $50,000 for each act committed with the intent to defraud."


Kraft Velveeta sued for alleged cooking time

On packs of Velveeta Shells & Cheese the cook time is prominently displayed: "ready in 3 1/2 minutes." Well, according to USA Today, one woman found that claim to be false and is currently suing Kraft Heinz Foods Company, the makers of Velveeta, for $5 million.


"We are aware of this frivolous lawsuit and will strongly defend against the allegations in the complaint," the company said in a statement to USA Today.

The suit really comes down to the nitty gritty details, and it's probably a good lesson in why packaging tends to provide seemingly too much information.

"Consumers seeing 'ready in 3 1/2 minutes' will believe it represents the total amount of time it takes to prepare the product, meaning from the moment it is unopened to the moment it is ready for consumption," the suit reads. "Three-and-a-half minutes is just the length of time to complete one of several steps."

In-N-Out sues Michigan burger chain for infringement

In-N-Out, the burger chain we love to hate, gave us reason to keep on hating last year when it sued Michigan burger joint Doll n' Burgers for infringing on the signature look of the restaurant.

In-N-Out seemed to mostly take issue with the use of white, red, and yellow in the design, citing things like the "white cups with red graphics" as proof of some kind of intellectual theft. Because, ya know, no restaurant other than In-N-Out has ever used that color palette in its branding, except for McDonald's and Burger King and Five Guys and Sonic and Steak 'n Shake and Checkers and Carl's Jr. and the list really goes on and on.


The lawsuit argued that there's a 49.3% chance people would confuse Doll n' Burgers with In-N-Out based on its design and the use of the "n" in its name. It's important to note that Doll n' Burgers has just two locations—one in Jackson, Michigan, and another in Tecumseh, Michigan—while In-N-Out has hundreds, none of which are in Michigan.

McDonald’s sued for McDonaldland characters

McDonaldland, Mayor McCheese's domain and the setting of McDonald's major marketing efforts well into the 1990s, was the epicenter of a years-long David-and-Goliath legal battle nearly 50 years ago. A 1977 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision document summarized a hefty dispute between Sid & Marty Krofft Television Productions, Inc. and the McDonald's Corporation.


It all started in 1970, when ad agency Needham, Harper & Steers had the opportunity to pitch a campaign to McDonald's. Before the pitch, agency representatives approached Sid and Marty Krofft, the masterminds behind the live-action puppet-centric kids' show H.R. Pufnstuf, to discuss a collaboration. Needham initially asked the Kroffts if the agency could base the McDonald's campaign directly on the iconic Pufnstuf characters—namely the titular character, a friendly dragon who served as mayor of the magical Living Island. Soon, however, talks fell apart.

Fast forward to 1971, when McDonald's aired the first of its McDonaldland commercials. It starred none other than Mayor McCheese, who, wouldn't you know it, bore a striking resemblance to H.R. Pufnstuf. In the commercial, McCheese sported a stately diplomat's sash that looked awfully similar to Pufnstuf's dignified cummerbund. Also like Pufnstuf, McCheese had a massive, disk-like noggin. Of course, McCheese's head was a burger, but a side-by-side comparison of the two is pretty uncanny.


There are a lot more details to this winding lawsuit, all of which you can check out here, but in the end the Kroffts scored a total award of $1,044,000 from McDonald's.

Pepsi sued for bungled prize giveaway

In 1996, Pepsi launched a campaign called "Pepsi Stuff," which would allow customers to collect Pepsi Points with every purchase of the product and eventually redeem those points for items in the Pepsi Stuff catalog. You would have to drink a lot of Pepsi to score even the lowest prizes in the Pepsi Stuff catalog, such as a Pepsi logo T-shirt.


So when Pepsi ran a commercial advertising a Harrier Jet as a prize worth 7 million Pepsi Points, the company figured no one would see that as anything other than a joke. But there was no fine print on the commercial stating that the prize wasn't real, and so one man took it at face value.

John Leonard saw the prize in the Pepsi Stuff commercial and created a plan to acquire it. Once he realized that collecting 7 million actual Pepsi points would be impossible, Leonard looked at the fine print on the promotion: In place of product labels, customers could simply buy Pepsi Points for 10 cents each. That means the Harrier Jet, a $33.8 million value, would cost just $700,000 in purchased Pepsi Points.


Pepsi initially told Leonard that there was no Harrier Jet to be had and that it was clearly a joke. In response, Leonard took Pepsi to court. Ultimately a judge ruled in Pepsi's favor, but Leonard came out as a hero, as depicted in the new Netflix docuseries Pepsi, Where's My Jet?

Popeyes sued for chicken sandwich shortage

In 2019 at the height of chicken sandwich madness, a Tennessee man named Craig Barr filed a lawsuit against Popeyes in Hamilton County General Sessions court alleging "false advertising, deceptive business practices by entity to public." A photo of the civil summons posted by WTVC shows Barr also claims he wasted "countless time" driving to and from Popeyes in pursuit of the elusive sandwich, during which time his car's tire and rim were damaged. He also notes: "Friends laughed at me. Humiliated." He sued for $5,000.


The lawsuit eventually went to trial, though there's little information out there verifying whether or not he got his $5,000. At the very least we can assume he's gotten himself a Popeyes chicken sandwich since then.

Raising Cane’s fights chicken finger ban

Raising Cane's was set to open a new location in a shopping center in Hobart, Indiana, with a pretty binding contract: In 2021, the company signed a 15-year lease with plans to open a double drive-thru and patio seating. It wasn't until after the ink on the deal was dry that Raising Cane's learned there was a ban on selling chicken at that location.


The former owners of the property had signed a noncompete deal with a nearby McDonald's location, guaranteeing that McDonald's the exclusive right to sell deboned chicken to the shopping center. According to a lawsuit filed by Raising Cane's, this was not discovered until eight months and $1 million into the construction process, when Crossings of Hobart asked McDonald's for a waiver to allow a Chipotle to open there and McDonald's refused, noting at that time that the Raising Cane's was also in violation of the provision.

"This case is about the defendants' scheme to induce Raising Cane's to enter a 15-year lease with rent payments to Crossings totaling millions of dollars, in exchange for a Raising Cane's restaurant that the defendants knew would never actually exist," Raising Cane's claimed in the lawsuit as reported in the Times of Northwest Indiana. "Despite knowing that the entire business model of Raising Cane's Chicken Fingers is premised on the sale of chicken fingers, the defendants did not disclose this issue before the lease was executed."


The defense is arguing that a line in the lease citing "potential restrictions" should have been more closely researched and taken to heart by Raising Cane's.

Salt Bae’s Nusr-Et Steakhouse sued for... many reasons

Just as soon as Salt Bae opened his steakhouse, Nusr-Et, he started getting hit with lawsuits, and as his restaurant's footprint expanded, so did the litigation. Here's a rundown of just how much legal action Salt Bae has faced:


Skittles sued for being allegedly inedible

A class action lawsuit was filed in July against Mars, Inc. claiming the company knowingly deceived consumers by not disclosing that Skittles, America's favorite non-chocolate candy, contain titanium oxide (TiO2), a substance the suit calls "unfit for human consumption." The substance is used to create the bright colors of the rainbow we all love to taste.


The suit claims that the plaintiff purchased Skittles but would not have done so had they known the candy contained TiO2 and therefore suffered "economic injury" by purchasing them. The use of TiO2 is banned in the UK. On that matter, the European Food Safety Authority said in 2021 that it could not rule out genotoxicity, or the ability of a substance to damage one's DNA. Because it could not be ruled out, the EFSA decided to rule TiO2 out of their foods. Meanwhile, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has said TiO2 is a potential carcinogenic.

Though Mars was required to comply with Europe's ban of TiO2, it hasn't made any moves to do so in the U.S., since the FDA sees no problem with it. And earlier this month Reuters reported that the case was ultimately dismissed, so Skittles are likely to go unchanged here in the States.


Slipknot vs. Burger King

In 2005 the metal band Slipknot was influential enough to inspire a Burger King ad, which led to a lawsuit, which led to a counter lawsuit, all over some chicken fries. Burger King got creative to promote Chicken Fries when they came out in 2005. Commercials featured a band with the surprisingly NSFW name Coq Roq. A SoundCloud page for the band's four songs still exists, but all other remnants of Coq Roq are now lost to history.


What really got the company into trouble was the look of the band members. Each performer wore a different style of chicken mask, and some of those masks looked very similar to Slipknot's distinct aesthetic, so the latter group filed a lawsuit. The lawsuit claimed that Burger King was unlawfully using Slipknot's trademarked likeness to sell Chicken Fries. Burger King hit back with its own lawsuit, claiming that Slipknot's masks were basically a rip-off of groups like Mushroomhead, Mudvayne, and Gwar. Burger King, it turns out, is super tapped into the world of heavy metal music.

Eventually the two sides came to a stalemate, and both dropped their respective suits. In the year that followed, Slipknot won their first Grammy and Chicken Fries went on to be one of Burger King's most successful menu items.


Subway’s never-ending tuna lawsuits

An initial lawsuit filed in 2021 regarding Subway's tuna alleged that what Subway serves as tuna isn't actually tuna, but rather a mixture of various fish. Subway vehemently denied these charges, causing New York Times journalist Julia Carmel to send away samples of the tuna to be tested. The lab sent Carmel an email that read, "No amplifiable tuna DNA was present in the sample and so we obtained no amplification products from the DNA. Therefore, we cannot identify the species."


This reporting caused Subway to create Subwaytunafacts.com, which is still live to share the reasoning behind calling Subway tuna "real" tuna. By October 2021, a judge threw out the initial lawsuit, but another one grew in its place. The same two plaintiffs from the original tuna lawsuit, Karen Dhanowa and Nilima Amin, filed a third version late last year. They claim that lab testing has shown that the tuna includes animal proteins such as pork, chicken, and cattle, which is a misrepresentation of the advertised "100% tuna."

The class action lawsuit was filed in the federal court in San Francisco. Subway, said in a statement that it's seeking to dismiss the "reckless and improper" lawsuit. It also said that the plaintiffs have "filed three meritless complaints, changing their story each time."


Subway sues journalists for chicken defamation

If you've ever thought that there was something a bit "off" about Subway's chicken, well, you are not alone. Back in 2017, a team of reporters for the Canadian Broadcast Corporation program Marketplace were curious, too. They sent samples of Subway chicken, along with chicken from A&W, McDonald's, Tim Hortons, and Wendy's, to a lab at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, to test how much of this chicken was actually chicken.


They weren't expecting anything to come back as 100%—things happen during processing and seasoning—but most of the tests came back showing between 88.5% and 89.4% chicken DNA. Except for Subway. Subway's "oven roasted chicken" tested as 53.6% chicken and its strips were 42.8%. The rest was soy protein. Perhaps, they thought, there had been a mistake in the lab. But when they tested again, the results were the same.

Marketplace broadcast the results of the study, but not before giving Subway a chance to respond. Subway, predictably, was not pleased. The company filed a $210 million defamation suit, claiming that the story was "recklessly and maliciously" published and that the study itself "lacked scientific rigor." When the suit went to court, the chain submitted its own scientific evidence that its chicken was less than 1% filler.


The suit was dismissed by the Ontario Superior Court. "The Marketplace report raised a quintessential consumer protection issue," Justice E.M. Morgan wrote in his ruling. "There are few things in society of more acute interest to the public than what they eat. To the extent that Subway's products are consumed by a sizable portion of the public, the public interest in their composition is not difficult to discern and is established on the evidence."

Taco John’s sues other businesses over Taco Tuesday®

As it stands today, Wyoming-based Taco John's owns the trademark for the phrase "Taco Tuesdays." The brand highlights its ownership on its website: "Ever hear of Taco Tuesday®? We started it! We even trademarked it. That's how seriously we take tacos."


Taco John's claims to have started Taco Tuesday, but multiple sources have found that the earliest use of the phrase came from Snow White Drive-In, which had it printed in South Dakota's Rapid City Journal in 1973. And in 1975, Taco Tuesday was also used by Marti's, a restaurant in Manhattan, Kansas. Both documented uses of the phrase occurred long before 1979, when Taco John's claims to have started it, and 1989, when the brand obtained the trademark.

Although the phrase is now extremely common, that has not stopped Taco John's from sending out cease and desist letters to plenty of businesses over the years. Not much has come from those threats, but sending them out in the first place isn't a good look, putting a damper on the fun of Taco Tuesday.


TGI Fridays sued for lack of drink prices

In 2019, Robert Cameron of Pemberton, New Jersey, sued a TGI Fridays franchise for failing to list drink prices on its menu, which he says in 2012 caused him to order a $5 beer and $3 soda that were more expensive than he expected. A court awarded his suit class-action status, allowing other customers who feel they were similarly duped by the franchise to join.


Cameron claimed he would have skipped the soda and ordered a less expensive beer had he seen the prices before making his decision. His suit claimed the restaurant deliberately withheld prices so that it could charge more, in violation of state law that requires prices to be posted for most consumer goods. In court filings, the franchise says it has listed drink prices on menus since August 2017. Cameron's lawyer says not listing prices was a "carefully researched scheme" intended to charge customers more.