Hell’s Kitchen: Getting to the Meat of the Case
On July 18, 2011, the Superior Court of New Jersey issued a decision in the matter of Gupta, et al. v. Asha Enterprises, LLC et al., Docket No.: A-3059-09T2, in the context of a motion for summary judgment and its response. After hearing arguments and reviewing briefs, the Court affirmed in part and reversed in part the lower court’s decision and remanded the case accordingly.
Most legal remedies include various types of financial and equitable damages, such as liquidated, punitive, compensatory, and specific performance for a wide variety of claims, including breach of contract, physical and/or emotional injuries and defective products. By contrast, the Gupta case presents what seems to be a unique claim seeking an unusual remedy. The Plaintiffs in Gupta found themselves spiritually patronizing Hell’s Kitchen after a sort, having been served religiously inappropriate/impure food despite ordering the opposite. The Gupta case asks the Court to determine whether a spiritual injury is cognizable and, if so, what the remedy for that injury can be.
The Plaintiffs in Gupta were practicing Hindus, and were scrupulously and strictly vegetarian. For them, the consumption of meat, even if by accident, fraud, or deception, meant that their souls became impure, thereby adversely affecting their karma and dharma, and impairing their ability to meet the Divine after death. Their only spiritual remedy after the consumption of meat was to participate in a ritual cleansing bath in the Ganges River in India.
Plaintiffs patronized Defendants’ restaurant and ordered vegetarian samosas which were on the menu. Plaintiffs specifically informed Defendants that the samosas must be vegetarian. Employees of Defendants assured Plaintiffs that the samosas would be vegetarian because that was the only variety that they made. Indeed, the Director of Edison Division of Health Food Services later confirmed that Defendants maintained separate cooking facilities for vegetarian and non-vegetarian foods. After the samosas were prepared, Defendants provided them to Plaintiffs, reassuring them of their vegetarian nature, and labeled them accordingly on their tin-foil wrapping. Unfortunately for Plaintiffs, Defendants mixed up their order with a concurrently ordered meat samosas order. Plaintiffs consumed some of the meat samosas and returned them to Defendants, complaining that they were not what were ordered. Defendants immediately prepared a batch of vegetarian samosas for Plaintiffs, which they accepted and for which they were not charged. Due to Plaintiffs’ consumption of the meat samosas, they believed they experienced profound spiritual injuries.
Plaintiffs brought suit against Defendants raising the following claims: products liability, violation of the Consumer Fraud Act (“CFA”), negligence, breach of implied warranty, and deceptive/fraudulent advertising. I will relate how the Court addressed each of these claims below.
The Court measured Plaintiffs’ products liability claim against the requirements of New Jersey’s Products Liability Act (“PLA”) and the decisions thereunder. Per the terms of the PLA, any and all claims regarding a defective product are subsumed within it. Therefore, all of Plaintiffs’ claims for a defective product sounding in negligence, the CFA, or breach of implied warranty were all individually dismissed as being statutorily subsumed within the PLA. As a point of clarity, Plaintiffs brought claims sounding in negligence, the CFA, or breach of implied warranty that were not brought pursuant to an alleged defective product. These were not dismissed on based on the above, and are each addressed below.
The Court decided that the PLA is applicable to food cooked and sold by restaurants, such as Defendants’, but Plaintiffs’ claims were not cognizable under the PLA as the PLA requires the products sold – in this case samosas – to be defective. The Court pointed out that the meat samosas were not defective themselves, they were simply the wrong product. Accordingly, while the meat samosas were edible and fit for human consumption, they just were not what Plaintiffs ordered. Indeed, the Court noticed that Plaintiffs’ claims focused on the conduct of Defendants’ employees in supplying the order as opposed to any defect in the food itself.
The Court next addressed Plaintiffs’ claims that Defendants were in violation of the CFA because, they allege, Defendants fraudulently and/or deceptively advertised the sale of vegetarian food. The Court conducted an analysis of the CFA after which the Court concluded that a party could be liable under the CFA for misrepresentation in advertising even if the misrepresentation is inadvertent. As long as the statement is false – which in the case of food includes a false/misleading description of its contents – a party can be found liable under the CFA. As a result, as Defendants represented that the samosas were vegetarian when, in fact, they contained meat, the Court determined that Plaintiffs have a cognizable claim against the Defendants for fraudulent/deceptive advertising under the CFA.
Despite the Court’s finding that Defendants did, in fact, commit misrepresentation, the Court was unable to find any evidence of actual loss on Plaintiffs’ part. Under the literal language of the CFA, a plaintiff bringing a claim under it must provide evidence of ascertainable loss of money or property. Based on the language of the CFA, the Court ruled that Plaintiffs did not present any evidence of any “loss of money or property.” Indeed, the Court noted that as the Defendants provided Plaintiffs replacement samosas free of charge, any money or property loss Plaintiffs may have incurred was remedied by Defendants. The Court further ruled that, unfortunately for Plaintiffs, the damages for spiritual injuries being sought by Plaintiffs simply are not a loss of money or property. Due to the clear language of the CFA, and the cases thereunder, the Court was unwilling to expand the language of the CFA to include spiritual losses.
The Court then addressed Plaintiffs’ negligence claims. In its analysis of Plaintiffs’ negligence claims, the Court focused on the duty element of a negligence claim. When making a claim for negligence, a plaintiff must demonstrate that a defendant owes a duty to that plaintiff; the breach of the aforesaid duty constitutes the negligent act. When analyzing Plaintiffs’ claims, the Court had to discern whether Defendants had the ability to foresee that serving meat samosas would or could cause Plaintiffs substantial injury. The Court further noted that foreseeability of an injury is particularly important for the tort of negligent infliction of emotional distress. When reviewing the claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress, the Court pointed out that it is only recognized in limited circumstances: when there is reasonable fear of personal injury and there was substantial bodily injury or sickness as a result of the fear. Based on its above analysis, the Court ruled that Plaintiffs’ claims do not fit into the requirements detailed above because Plaintiffs did not experience substantial bodily injury or sickness as a result of Defendants’ actions.
Finally, the Court addressed Plaintiffs’ claims of breach of express warranty of fitness of the samosas. It reviewed the Uniform Commercial Code which states that the description of goods to be sold creates an express warranty that the goods conform to their description. As Defendants’ samosas were certainly not what they were described by Defendants to be, namely vegetation, the Court ruled that Plaintiffs’ claims of breach of express warranty of fitness was cognizable.
As the Court ruled that Plaintiffs’ claim of implied warranty of fitness was cognizable, the Court then had to determine whether Plaintiffs experienced any cognizable damages, specifically the spiritual damages claimed. The Court indicated that there has been at least one previous case where a religionist (Jewish in that case) successfully sued, and received recoverable damages, for emotional distress as a result of a violation of his religious needs. Though the Court acknowledged that precisely valuing Plaintiffs’ damages will be difficult, that was not a sufficient reason to dismiss Plaintiffs’ claims pursuant to a motion for summary judgment; however, the Court also acknowledged that Plaintiffs must establish that their damages were reasonably foreseeable by Defendants at the time the samosas were sold to Plaintiffs.
Among their damages, Plaintiffs requested recovery for the costs required to travel to purify their souls in India. It was Plaintiffs’ burden to prove that Defendants could reasonably foresee that, due to serving them meat-filled-samosas, Plaintiffs would sustain such spiritual damages as claimed. The Court did not believe that sufficient discovery was done to determine the total amount of damages and whether Defendants could have foreseen them.
As a side note, the Court, in a footnote, indicated that it did not think the litigation of Plaintiffs’ case caused, or could cause, inappropriate religious entanglement with the Court in violation of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. The Court believed that simply neutral legal principles could be employed that would not involve ruling on religious concepts.
In the end, the Court ruled that almost all of Plaintiffs’ claims were not cognizable; however, the Court did ultimately rule that Plaintiffs do have at least a limited claim and that spiritual damages can, at least in theory, be demanded in a context of a civil suit. Perhaps the Court really can require Hell’s Kitchen to be washed with the waters of the Ganges River.