Plaintiff lawyers owe companies like Taco Bell an apology

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My, how 25 years and millions of lawsuits can change the meaning of a once-popular slogan!

In the 1980s, the fast-food chain Wendy’s started a clever advertising campaign featuring an elderly woman staring at a competitor’s small hamburger and angrily asking, “Where’s the beef?” That slogan, and some pretty good food, helped Wendy’s become the third-largest fast-food chain in the world.

Fast forward to 2011. America is a much more litigious society than it was when Wendy’s made that slogan famous — these days, an average of about 15 million lawsuits are filed in the United States each year. Unfortunately, too often our judges are serving only the interests of plaintiff lawyers.

In light of America’s deteriorating legal climate, it probably surprised no one this January when an Alabama law firm specializing in product liability lawsuits decided to put its own twist on the “Where’s the beef?” question and sued another fast-food chain for allegedly lying to the public about the beef content of its food. The firm filed a class action lawsuit against Taco Bell, claiming the restaurant’s filling is 65 percent binders, extenders, preservatives, additives and other agents. I could almost hear a Chihuahua whimpering in the background.

It was a typical “sue first, ask questions later” display of lawyerly bravado that’s all too common in the United States today, but this time it backfired on the greedy barristers. Taco Bell fought back and, for a large corporation, was uncharacteristically vocal in defending itself from this ridiculous lawsuit. It utilized the media to effectively point out that its beef “is 88 percent quality USDA-inspected beef.” And guess what? Taco Bell won even before the matter got to a jury.

This week, the law firm decided to withdraw its lawsuit. The lawyers at the firm have refused to comment, but it’s doubtful that they’re celebrating by having a fiesta. Taco Bell, on the other hand, took out a full-page ad in major newspapers to declare that the lawsuit was withdrawn and boldly asked the lawyers: “Would it kill you to say you’re sorry?” Good for them! They’ve set a terrific example for companies across America to stand up against frivolous lawsuits.

However, not everyone agrees with me, and now Taco Bell is being criticized by some marketing “experts” for that ad. I say to them, “What’s your beef?!” Actually, I’d like to say something much stronger, but I can’t turn that into a pun. As a person who markets ideas to millions of Americans each year, I say that the vast majority of Americans will see this stand by Taco Bell as a positive thing. I always encourage Americans to patronize businesses that fight back against predatory lawyers’ baseless claims.

Today, unfortunately, it’s common to see meritless class action lawsuits like this filed against deep-pocketed companies EXACTLY because too many of them have refused to fight back like Taco Bell did. Plaintiff lawyers know that they can abuse the “justice” system to extort millions of dollars out of a company because the company knows that the bad publicity could cost it millions more. The mantra is settle, settle, settle.

In addition to the huge legal bills it must pay, a company can take a massive hit to its market value because of meritless lawsuits. Investors, scared off by the prospect of a long trial against the company, might flee the company’s stock and cause the value of the company to decline by hundreds of millions of dollars or more. It happens. No wonder so many companies settle.

Taco Bell is owed an apology. But not just from the law firm that filed this whopper of a lawsuit. Taco Bell is owed an apology by our public officials who have allowed America’s civil justice system to become a laughing stock around the world because lawsuits like this regularly make it through the front door of the courthouse. Taco Bell had to spend a lot of money on lawyers and defending itself in the media before this lawsuit was withdrawn, and they’ll never get that money back.

Yo quiero a justice system for which we no longer have to apologize!

Bob Dorigo Jones, who serves as Senior Fellow for the Center for America, is the author of the bestselling Remove Child Before Folding, The 101 Stupidest, Silliest and Wackiest Warning Labels Ever. He also hosts the radio commentary, “Let’s Be Fair,” that airs on radio stations across the country.

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