Len Niehoff is Professor from Practice at the University of Michigan Law School, where he teaches courses in civil procedure, ethics, evidence, First Amendment, law & theology, and media law. He writes regularly in all of these fields. He is also Of Counsel to the Honigman law firm. The opinions expressed here are his own.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Unringing the Bell

Taco Bell has responded to a lawsuit alleging that its beef mixture contains more filler than meat by taking out full page ads declaring "thank you for suing us." A CNNMoney.com report on the campaign can be found here.

A number of commentators have wondered about the wisdom of the strategy. After all, whatever its other virtues, the civil justice system has a poor record as a "name clearing" mechanism.

Just ask the Texas cattlemen who sued Oprah Winfrey over her statements about beef (that unquestionably was beef) and lost. Of course, they didn't just lose; they lost to one of the most popular personalities in America .... who had her own television talk show. It is hard to believe that, in retrospect, they still think this was a good idea.

But matters are even more complicated for Taco Bell. Its problem is being driven by social media, which moves at the speed of light. Litigation, which moves at the pace of your average glacier, will never catch up.

Over many years in practice I encountered numerous businesses and individuals who were excited about being sued because of the opportunity for "vindication" it afforded. It rarely played out that way. In general, they would have done better to take a deep breath and recall the words of the distinguished jurist Learned Hand: "As a litigant, I should dread a lawsuit beyond almost anything short of sickness and death."


  1. That cheeky ad from YUM Foods, the Taco Bell parent company, got a lot of attention in social media. The bad news (the lawsuit) was out there, and now buzz about the ad pretty much replaced it. A pretty good PR move. Plus, it's interesting to know just how much beef is in one of those tasty $1 fast food treats.

  2. Mark, thanks for weighing in! I do wonder about one thing, though. With respect to the lawsuit, only one of three things can happen: Taco Bell wins; Taco Bell loses; Taco Bell settles. Two of those three are inconsistent with the strategy of vindication through litigation. It is certainly a bold move. But then so is taking three cards to fill out a straight. In any event, as always I bow to your superior expertise in all matters PR.