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If you are a Hindu and you live in the United States, and you have ever so much as contemplated putting McDonald's French fries in your mouth, then you have just been dragged into a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the mammoth company, thanks to Seattle lawyer Harish Bharti.
Whether you know it or not, Bharti is working hard on your behalf. He wants the behemoth multinational to cough up 'hundred of millions of dollars' for allegedly fooling the one million plus Hindus in the US -- and 15 million or so non-Hindu vegetarians -- into eating the greasy finger food for years.
For years, McDonald's has touted its ever-popular fry-cooked in 100% vegetable oil as safe-eating for vegetarians, Bharti contends. But behind the scenes, in a nondescript pre-cooking step, that wayward clown Ronald McDonald has been secretly adding a miniscule amount of beef tallow to preserve his fry's finger-licking flavor.
Yeah, so what? the company says. We do add a small amount of beef flavoring to our fries, but we have never promoted it as a vegetarian item. Besides, we are obeying all the laws on ingredient disclosure.
Not good enough, Bharti has fired back. You have engaged in deceptive business practices, so you had better pay up to settle my clients' stomachs.
Amid a media maelstrom that would have made O J Simpson lawyer Johnny Cochran envious, the savvy attorney filed his class action lawsuit against McDonald's on Tuesday. (He already has another class action suit going on the side against aerospace giant Boeing on behalf of Asian Americans.) The suit names two troubled Hindus -- Brij M Sharma and Charanjit Singh -- and one non-Hindu vegetarian -- Lisa M Bertini -- as the plaintiffs.
Outside observers are already calling the new case a drive-through nuisance suit which may be quietly settled out of court to mitigate a PR nightmare that's just begun to buzz. But if it settles for even a fraction of the 'hundreds of millions of dollars' Bharti has sought, it will be will be a big payoff for the trial lawyer, the three plaintiffs he represents, and perhaps 'several dozen' other angry Hindus and veggies he says he has signed up as clients.
Needless to say, with all this on his plate, Bharti is busy these days. But before dashing off for a pressing engagement with CNN, he made time for a quick chat with rediff.com Assistant Editor Nirshan Perera.
Why are you filing this case?
My clients have been deceived by McDonald's. Some 1 million or so are Hindus and for them eating beef is against their religion.
Who are your clients?
Who are the members of this class action lawsuit?
Most Hindus are vegetarian. Even those who are non-vegetarian wouldn't eat beef knowingly. Every Hindu who follows the faith and is faithful to their religion falls in this class. In addition to that I have about 15 million non-Hindu US people who are vegetarians by choice. They were represented by McDonald's for over 11 years, including by their CEO, in media releases, and they had a big campaign starting in the 1990s, saying that from now on we will use only 100% vegetable oil to cook our fries. So all these people have been eating beef not knowing that.
In your opinion, does that phrase-cooked in 100% vegetable oil-imply that it's a vegetarian item?
They have been deceptive and they have been saying to people that this is vegetarian. I have hundreds of calls from non-Hindu vegetarians saying that they repeatedly asked them...
So McDonald's employees told them it was a vegetarian item?
Yes. People are saying there is absolutely no meat product into it...
But did McDonald's ever stress in any marketing material that it was a vegetarian product?
They were saying it was cooked in 100% vegetable oil. What does that mean? Exactly that it is a vegetarian product, that no meat is involved. And that says it is vegetarian. If I tell you this is a glass of water, I am telling you it is pure water, it is not milk and there is no other thing added into it.
Are there specific parties to this lawsuit or are you taking it for granted that every Hindu in America wants to be part of this lawsuit?
This is how class action lawsuits work. I just had a class action going against Boeing on behalf of Asian Americans. I had a certain number of clients signed up. Then you file the lawsuit.
So how many clients have you signed up?
From every state in the union I have clients signed up. I can't even count. I'll tell you a large number of clients.
Can you give me a number? Is it 100, is it below 100?
Signing up, you mean the people, there are two things. If you file individual claims you have each client for each single claim. In class actions, you have a class representative. So in the pleading in the court, one person will represent a whole class. So if you ask me how many people are in this lawsuit, there are only three at this time, which means two Hindus representing the class of 1 million people and one non-Hindu vegetarian representing a class of 15 million people.
How much are you seeking in this lawsuit?
You know the damages I'm seeking ... I'm seeking damages as well as punitive damages, and sometimes the damages are for each violation so that is the business of experts and after discovery. But I can tell you that generally it will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
And if everything goes positively in the case, who will get that money? Will it be the three plaintiffs or...
Every class member will get that money.
So does that mean the 1 million Hindus and the 15 million non-Hindus ...
Or does it mean the three people?
Which does it mean?
All of them. Class means all of them.
I still don't understand how this works. So if you win, you'll send a check to every Hindu in America?
Yes, that is how it done. You need to study up how class action lawsuits are done. It is a process of informing people. First you determine who the class members are. And when the damages are received from the defendant, then you notify the class members and they are distributed under court supervision.
So how many class members have signed up so far?
You still don't get the point here. You need to read up on what class action lawsuits are.
I am a reporter, not a lawyer, that's why I'm trying to clarify this with you.
I am representing a whole class of people, which means I am representing 16 million.
Hold on for just one minute (answers a call on his cell phone). Thanks for holding. My cab is coming soon. I am being interviewed by CNN. So where it is, from the point of view of legally, if I only sign up 3 people, that is all...
And you've only signed up three people so far?
No, no. That is not true. I have signed several dozen people. What I'm saying is I don't need more than three people. You need only class representatives. For other purposes I may be signing up more for purposes of evidentiary, but I don't need more than three. There is a difference for requirement, so I may be signing up more, but legally the three can take care of it for the whole 16 million.
First, you told me three people and now you are telling me dozens of people?
Three people are in the lawsuit. They are called class representatives. So there is a difference between class representatives and other stuff. Now, I have a cab waiting, I need to...
So three class representatives and dozens of what?
Dozens of signed up clients.
But these clients, are they party to the class action lawsuit?
They are my clients. Yes, they have to be party, but there are not in the pleading.
I just want to confirm one thing with you before you go, did you say that any award that is given to you by McDonald's...
I'll call you back on that.
...will be divided between the three people and dozens of other ...
(Silence. Bharti hangs up.)
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