No, You Can’t Sue a Movie Theater for Overpriced Popcorn
In a lawsuit that I’m sure “tort reformers” will point to as being yet another example of how broken our legal system is, and why we desperately need to immunize wealthy defendants from compensating the victims of their wrongdoing save the economy from frivolous lawsuits, a moviegoer has decided to sue the owner of a movie theater for charging what he believes to be an unfair price for concessions. Yes, really.
This is an example of a lawsuit filed by someone who obviously has no idea how the American legal system (or economy) works. I’ll just get this out of the way: you don’t have a legal right to cheap popcorn, soda, Milk-Duds or Junior Mints at a movie theater. Are the prices on these items at movie theaters ridiculous? Yes, you could make that argument. But are you being forced at gunpoint to buy a $5 box of Sno-Caps? If your answer is “yes,” I suggest you leave that theater and call the police. Maybe there’s only one movie theater in your town, so you don’t have any basis for comparison; but I can assure you that the employees of normal theaters don’t behave that way.
But since this man’s lawsuit doesn’t allege that he was in any way forced to pay those high prices for candy, I’m going to go ahead and assume that that’s not the case. This lawsuit betrays a basic misunderstanding of both the law and simple economics. First, he claims that the high price of concessions at movie theaters violates the Michigan Consumer Protection Act, which is similar to the unfair competition laws that exist in the majority of U.S. states. These laws are meant to prohibit legitimately unfair business practices, such as false advertising, defamation of one’s business competitors, price fixing, and the like.
Most Michigan lawyers would probably say that the law in question doesn’t apply to this case, as the movie theater does not provide a vital service, does not misrepresent its prices, and many other reasons. What’s most surprising to me is the fact that this guy actually found a lawyer to take his case, and he isn’t just some crackpot representing himself (with the complaint hopefully written in crayon). According to this article, the plaintiff’s lawyer has publicly stated that the lawsuit is at least in part based on the fact that movie theaters charge far more for their food items than other stores charge for the same items. Last I checked, that’s not a legal wrong that warrants compensation.
But I’m most surprised by the fact that this guy actually found a lawyer to take his case. There’s really no question that the case is a loser. I hope for his sake that he’s not working on contingency.
But more importantly, cases like these, and the lawyers who take them, call the entire legal profession into question by cheapening and delegitimizing it.
This is because there are certain interests, most of them connected to business, who have a strong interest in changing tort law to their advantage. Because large corporations engage in the largest number of transactions with the general public, they’re subjected to the largest number of lawsuits. This is not a criticism of large corporations, mind you. It’s just an illustration of the simple fact that, in day-to-day life, a certain percentage of things go wrong.
And, sometimes, when a transaction goes wrong, whether one party breaches a contract, or a customer slips and falls in a grocery store on some oil that was spilled hours before and never got cleaned up, one party is clearly at fault. To deal with those cases, we have a legal system that compels culpable parties to compensate the victims for any harm directly caused by whatever culpable conduct they engaged in.
There are some plaintiffs who have abused this system, either by fabricating injuries or suing over injuries that were obviously nobody’s fault. And, occasionally, one of these lawsuits will fall through the cracks and a plaintiff will end up walking away with a significant judgment. Or, more often, the facts of a lawsuit will be misreported by the media, making the plaintiff’s case look ridiculous when it’s actually valid.
This has led to a movement that’s broadly referred to as “tort reform.” Tort reform largely involves making it more difficult for plaintiffs to recover for injuries they’ve sustained, through heightened burdens of proof, shorter statutes of limitations, damage caps, and other measures. The stated goal is always to protect the economy from being drained by nonsense lawsuits. And I don’t doubt that many people who advocate for tort reform are sincere in this goal and in their beliefs. But the simple fact is that many tort reform organizations are backed by large corporations, and engaged in significant political lobbying.
And one of the most powerful pieces of ammunition is lawsuits like this. I have no doubt that this lawsuit will be thrown out in its very early stages. However, it will almost certainly be used as “proof” that, in order to prevent absurd lawsuits like this one from happening is to prevent victims of medical malpractice from collecting more than $250,000 in damages, or something similar.
I hope the public, and our state legislatures, resist these calls. Cases like this are amusing, and can be dismissed with a laugh. But more importantly, they test our commitment to one of our society’s core values: access to the courts. Let’s hope that that value isn’t compromised any time soon.