Here’s a simple question: when you buy something, do you expect to get what you’ve paid for? Should products be correctly labeled and advertised? The answer – of course – is yes. A waiter can’t bring you pizza instead of pasta “because they’re basically the same,” and taking stomach medicine when you have a headache isn’t going to get you anywhere.
Sure, some substitutions are pretty common – we don’t have Coke, is Pepsi OK? – but you’re always given a choice. If you can’t have what you ordered, you get to make a decision about what to do next.
Last week, a case in Massachusetts drew a fair amount of attention after a number of Dunkin’ Donuts franchises settled a class action lawsuit about their use of margarine and/or a butter substitute when customers asked for butter. Among the coverage, right next to the “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!” jokes, a number of reporters raised concerns about the terms of the settlement – and, specifically, that the attorney who filed the case would walk away with $90,000, while plaintiffs covered by the settlement would be eligible for only three free baked products.
For many, this stinks of another frivolous class action – a case of attorneys nit-picking over small problems and cleaning up, leaving a few throwaway crumbs of a settlement for consumers. Here’s the problem, though: biased coverage of the settlement makes great headlines, but leaves out the important parts. Sure, the attorney got more than the lead plaintiff, but the case also sought injunctive relief to stop the stores from substituting for butter for the next year. To understand what that means, let’s take a closer look.
The Curious Case of the Buttered Bagels
Jan Polanik is clearly a man of taste. He also likes bagels – and when he ordered a bagel with butter from a Massachusetts Dunkin’ Donuts, he wasn’t thrilled to find that they’d actually used margarine or a butter substitute. He’d asked for butter, and paid for butter – but that wasn’t what he got. He realized that more than one store was doing this, and filed lawsuits in Suffolk Superior Court accusing the stores of switching the spreads. To be fair, the attorney who filed the cases, Thomas Shapiro, knows that the great margarine/butter divide sounds trivial. As he told the Boston Globe:
“Candidly, it seems like a really minor thing, and we thought twice or three times about whether to bring a lawsuit or not. [...] The main point of the lawsuit is to stop the practice of representing one thing and selling a different thing. It’s a minor thing, but at the same time, if somebody goes in and makes a point to order butter for the bagel . . . they don’t want margarine or some other kind of chemical substitute.”
To make a long story short, Polanik won, and Dunkin Donuts stores in Eastern and Central Massachusetts admitted they’d been using margarine for food safety reasons, pointing out that butter kept at room temperature could pose a risk. Here’s the most important part, though: Shapiro sought injunctive relief – a term used to describe a legal order that forces a defendant to stop a certain behavior as part of a settlement – and the stores in question are now barred from using any butter replacements for one year. After the year is up, if they want to go back to their old ways, the franchises will be required to clearly indicate the substitution to their customers.
So, What’s the Deal with the “Injunctive Relief”?
It might help to think of the injunction as the less sexy, less popular partner to the settlement money. Not as fun to talk about, and certainly not headline-worthy. Just have a look at the coverage online…lots of chatter about the attorneys’ fees, but not very much about the injunction ordered against Dunkin’.
Injunctions show that what actually matters in these types of lawsuits isn’t the money, but the way the company was acting – and what can be done to change it. These Dunkin Donuts stores were deceiving customers – and now, they can’t. Their questionable behavior has been targeted and stopped, and even if they want to switch back to margarine in the future (because, let’s face it, the room temperature butter argument does have something to it), they’ll have to give customers the choice. That’s the real take away here: if you want butter, you’ll get it, and if Dunkin Donuts offers you margarine because it will spread better, that’s your call. The customers might not always be right, but they always have a right to get what they pay for.
Why Does It All Matter?
First of all, businesses can’t just make a decision on your behalf to switch two products without telling you. Margarine instead of butter sounds trivial, but where’s the line? Peanut butter instead of almond butter? For people with allergies, that could be fatal. If you ask for gluten-free bread, should they be allowed to sell you regular? If stores can skimp on butter, what else is fair game? This might sound silly, but this is how the law has to work: sets of rules that clearly mark what is and isn’t permitted.
There’s a Butter Life Ahead
Reaction to cases like this is understandable – after all, it’s fun to buy into the “lawyers are evil and only want money” narrative. Trying to force that take onto this suit, though, misses the nuance and importance of these kinds of rulings. Bringing companies in line with established regulations is all part of ensuring consumers are kept as safe and well-informed as possible. It’s the same principle behind cases filed over the use of terms like “natural” or “organic.” Things have to be what they say they are. And in the case of food, where allergies or religious or ethical choices may come into play, this is doubly important.
At the end of the day, upholding the law matters. If it’s a case about Weleda mislabeling “natural” products, it might sound more reasonable, but Dunkin Donuts mis-buttering its bagels is part of the same problem, and deserves the same legal treatment.
If it says butter, it has to be butter.