Corporate lawyers acting on behalf of multi-national food conglomerates rank just slightly below Islamic suicide bombers on my list of people I’m likely to feel sorry for. But today I had cause to make an exception (well, for a moment or two anyway).

Yum! Restaurants Australia Pty Ltd (the local tentacle of Yum! Brands Inc, formerly part of the PepsiCo empire) owns the right to carry on business in Australia under the KFC and Pizza Hut brands. As Yum!’s lawyers are now discovering, nothing gets media coverage like an 11-year-old girl whose lawyers claim has been severely disabled by one of their KFC stores.

You can read the story all over the web, but in a nutshell, Monika Samaan collapsed and was rushed to hospital with salmonella poisoning after eating a Twister bought from a KFC in Villawood. Her parents are seeking more than $10 million in damages after the illness developed into spastic quadriplegia, profound intellectual disability and liver dysfunction.

There was a bit of coverage back in March when the claim was filed, but Yum!’s PR folks managed to fend that off by pointing out that the science was on their side. Since nothing much more was likely to happen until somebody got in front of a judge, the story subsided below the waves.

But now the trial has started, we’ve got the enthralling prospect of full-blown US style media trail (complete with daily plaintiff lawyer doorstops) to look forward to.

How does KFC win this battle now that they’ve let it get this far? If they win (in a legal sense), they sentence a severely incapacitated child to a life of misery without compensation (and probably some big legal bills). The brand damage would be incalculable and the sales impact measurable only on a calculator that has lots of zero’s.

If they lose (in a legal sense) they get to pay out a bit of money, but then sign themselves up to a conga line of unending litigation. Everyone who has ever felt queasy after gobbling a chicken breast (hard to believe, but I’ll bet there are some) will be off to see their lawyer. Worse than that, KFC’s food will have been legally proven to have caused some very, very nasty medical outcomes. How will ‘mad-chicken disease’ look on the front pages of the tabloids?

In 1994 McDonald’s was sued by a 79-year-old woman who spilled coffee in her lap. She asked her lawyer to get Macca’s to pay the costs of the skin grafts (about $20,000). McDonald’s lawyers offered her $800 instead and apparently she was less than pleased with their ‘tude because litigation ensued. After a jury trial and a ton of bad publicity, the Golden Arches were ordered to pay Mrs Liebeck $640,000. Macca’s appealed but as the headlines turned ugly, they decided settlement was the better part of valour.

McDonalds’ coffee inflicted third degree burns on six percent of Mrs Liebeck’s body. And she was cured with a skin graft. This barely rates as a scratch compared to what Monika Samaan has suffered. It’s been more than four months since reports first surfaced about Monika’s lawsuit. And I’d guess that YUM!’s lawyers have had plenty of chances to quietly settle this matter for less than $10 million.

During that same time, KFC’s PR folks have been spending $35 million telling us that their food really is quite healthy now. They must be sobbing into their frappe’s as they watch all that brand building go up in smoke.

Sometimes the best option in litigation is to quietly settle, no matter how right you think you are. This is even more the case when the plaintiff is a severely disabled child and the defendant is a corporate monolith with a less than sparkling record when it comes to food safety. But since that didn’t happen, we all now get to put on our special darkened glasses and watch the implosion of a brand before our very eyes.

Peter Fray

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