Those of you who have attended my “Law of McDonald’s” talks in California and Florida may recall the case of the strip search hoax. A Florida man who was unusually persuasive would call dozens of fast food restaurants until he could find someone who would believe he was with the police and who would disrobe employees (or themselves) at his instructions; though there have been other lawsuits seeking to blame the fast food restaurants for this, courts have generally thrown them out. One exception was the case of Ogborn v. McDonald’s, where two targets of the hoax successfully sued for millions. On Friday, the Kentucky Court of Appeals largely affirmed the lower court judgment, though it reduced the punitive damages received by Donna Summers (who gave an Alford guilty plea for her role in the strip search) from $1 million to $400,000. McDonald’s hasn’t yet decided whether to appeal to the Kentucky Supreme Court. (Andrew Wolfson, “Appeals court upholds $6.1 million strip-search verdict against McDonald’s”, Kentucky Courier-Journal, Nov. 20, via ABA Journal).
I’m going to have much much more to say about this case, but for now, let us simply note that a jury found for the plaintiff in a lawsuit against McDonald’s over her victimization by a perverted prank phone call, and awarded $6.1 million; we mentioned the incident in the comments to this lengthy September 2006 discussion of a similar lawsuit that was thrown out of court, and first noted the potential for litigation in April 2004, days before the actual incident took place in this suit.
What the press coverage to date has not mentioned is that the person who almost certainly perpetrated the incident was acquitted after the Kentucky case fell apart because the criminal defense attorney was able to impeach the witnesses by noting their financial stakes in the civil litigation decided today. Thus, thanks to our civil litigation system’s quest for the deep pocket, the guilty party went free and a tertiary innocent victim got hit with damages. Which is precisely why it’s a misnomer when trial lawyers rename themselves associations for “justice.”
Here, a caller from a payphone in Florida tricked a Hinesville, Georgia, McDonald’s male manager and 55-year-old male employee into strip searching and molesting a 19-year-old female employee, who put up with the telephone-instructed molestation for thirty minutes before putting an end to matters. The franchise immediately fired the two men three days after the February 2003 incident, and offered the female victim counseling and a new job, but she instead quit and sued the franchise and McDonald’s. McDonald’s did warn the franchise (and other franchises) about the hoax in 1999 and 2001, (and the McDonald’s training manual now explicitly rules out strip searches of employees rather than relying on common sense) but such warnings are, of course, evidence that they should have warned more, according to the plaintiffs. The district court threw out the suit against McDonald’s, and many of the claims against the franchisee.
The defendants’ attorneys apparently have little faith that the law will have the common sense the employees lacked and blame the appropriately responsible parties rather than the deep pockets: to avoid liability they are buying into the plaintiff’s theories and seeking to blame each other in September 15 arguments before the Eleventh Circuit on interlocutory appeal. Some more aggressive defense might have had an effect: “The whole thing is really stupid,” said Senior Judge Peter Fay. (Alyson M. Palmer, “Bizarre ‘Strip-Search Hoax’ Case Before 11th Circuit”, Fulton County Daily Report, Sep. 25).
If it becomes just a little more expensive to get a fast-food meal these days, it’s in part because a hoaxer–perhaps a single individual in north Florida–is calling restaurants around the country and persuading gullible managers to strip-search employees and customers. Restaurants, fearing lawsuits, are conducting defensive training to inculcate the common sense needed to avoid being fooled by such a call. (Steven Gray, Wall Street Journal, Mar. 30; Editorial, “Strip search is no ‘prank'”, Arizona Republic, Apr. 4; Charles Williams, “Restaurant Industry Warns Members to Beware Strip-Search Hoax”, Charleston Post and Courier, Apr. 2; “Lawsuit Filed After Strip Search Hoax”, WCVB, Feb. 26).