Warning: Your Calories May Vary
It's not often I get to praise class action lawsuits and simultanesously agree with litigation enthusiast John "Sue the Bastards" Banzhaf, so I guess I should seize this opportunity. Seattle attorney Daniel Johnson has filed a lawsuit against the Applebee's restaurant chain for misrepresenting the fat and calorie content of its dishes. The lead plaintiff is a Washington woman who was dismayed to find that the items on the chain's Weight Watchers menu were a lot more fattening than Applebee's claimed. Johnson also has filed a would-be class action against Chili's, On the Border, and Romano's Macaroni Grill, saying those chains are guilty of similar misrepresentations.
These suits follow, and seem to have been prompted by, an investigation by Scripps Television Stations that found a wide divergence between nutritional information advertised by these chains and the results of independent laboratory analyses. The Cajun Lime Tilapia, Steak and Portobello, and Garlic Herb Chicken at Applebee's, for instance, had twice the advertised fat, while the Macaroni Grill's Pollo Margo Skinny Chicken had twice the advertised calories. As Katherine Mangu-Ward suggested last month, this sort of thing is not just a bad business practice but a form of fraud: selling something under false pretenses, knowing that the buyer is counting on certain features of a product and either deliberately lying about them or not caring enough to make sure the information is accurate. In a case like this, where the injury to any particular consumer is neither negligible nor serious enough to make an individual lawsuit worthwhile, a class action is an appropriate remedy. Johnson stands to gain much more from this lawsuit than any of the class members, but that is his reward for performing a genuine public service: encouraging restaurant chains to be more honest by creating negative publicity and forcing them to pay the cost of defending or settling the case.