Libel Suit Against Food Critic Alleges Steak Sandwich Misclassified

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Adam Liptak of the New York Times writes today (March 7) about restaurants filing libel lawsuits against food critics.  The lawsuits are not uncommon, although, as Liptak writes, they are virtually never successful.

The most recent example is a new lawsuit against Craig LaBan of the Philadelphia Inquirer, alleging that LaBan’s description of the strip steak at Chops restaurant as "miserably tough and fatty" constituted libel.  Chops doesn’t challenge that description, but argues that the item being reviewed was not a "strip steak" at all, but rather a "steak sandwich without bread."  This is a different cut of meat, Chops argues, and says LaBan therefore should not have compared it to a strip steak and that he doesn’t even know what the strip steak at Chops tastes like.  Or in legal terms, LaBan "had, and has, no personal knowledge of the quality of the Chops strip steak."

Okay — but he may well have personal knowledge, apparently, that a Chops steak sandwich without bread is miserably tough and fatty.  (His words, not mine.)

Liptak writes that there are numerous examples, at least in American courts, of rulings that even harshly worded reviews are protected opinion.  Some good ones:

  • "The fish on the Key West platter tasted like old ski boots."  Ruled obvious hyperbole and not an actual comparison of fish to old ski boots the reviewer had once eaten.
  • "Bring a can of Raid if you plan to eat here."  Ruled to be protected "techniques of humor and ridicule."
  • Description of a seafood dish as "Trout a la green plague."  The court: "An ordinarily informed person would not infer that these entrees were actually carriers of communicable diseases."

The article also quotes a legendary review by Matthew Norman of the London Sunday Telegraph Magazine, in 2004, of the London restaurant Shepherds.  His review described Shepherds as "among the very worst restaurants in Christendom," serving "meals of crescendoing monstrosity."  It appears to be one of the few restaurant reviews to compare a dish (the crab and brandy soup) to WMD: "Were it found today in a canister buried in the Iraqi desert," Norman wrote, "it would save Tony Blair’s skin."  And for dessert — the yellowcake?