Following the putative class suit filed last month in New Jersey by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) against Denny’s, a similar suit was filed in Illinois (apparently CSPI is not directly involved in this action). The Illinois complaint can be found here.
Like the New Jersey complaint, the Illinois action alleges claims of consumer fraud and breach of implied warranty of merchantability. Previous posts on this site have explained why both consumer fraud and implied warranty of merchantability claims should fail on their face.
The Illinois action adds claims for unjust enrichment, accounting and ”breach of contract implied in fact.” Claims for unjust enrichment and accounting seem intertwined and not all that different from consumer fraud and breach of implied warranty claims.
Breach of contract implied in fact is more creative. Instead of directly attacking Denny’s representations (which as discussed in previous posts are not really alleged to be inaccurate), this claim asserts something that looks more like a products liability claim. The claim turns not so much on “fraud” but on whether the meals sold “contained excessive amounts of sodium, such that it was not fit for human consumption.” This cause of action alleges that the “bargained for” contract between class members and Denny’s required Denny’s to provide “a meal fit for human consumption.”
While creative, the breach of contract implied in fact claim may be more problematic than the fraud and implied warranty of merchantability claims. First, as discussed previously, Denny’s discloses on its website (and according to CSPI, at its restaurants) sodium content of menu items. Like the fraud claims, proof that plaintiffs could have reasonably bargained for something different seems problematic.
Second, plaintiffs are asking the court to use its equitable powers and step into the shoes of local, state and federal health departments and regulatory agencies to pass on appropriate sodium levels in restaurant food. As a rule, courts use their equitable powers only in extraordinary circumstances (e.g., a building falls down, assets leave the country, an individual’s life or liberties at stake, etc.). If regulators and legislators have not reached consensus on regulating sodium, odds are that most judges will avoid weighing in on the issue.
Despite their problems (and probable lack of merit), best guess is that the plaintiffs’ class action bar will continue copy-catting these suits across the country. Doubtful that Denny’s will be the only victim.