A man wants free whoppers for life after getting locked in a Burger King bathroom and he has filed a lawsuit to get them. He claims that a local manager promised to provide him free hamburgers to compensate for a traumatic experience of being stuck in a bathroom for “well over an hour,” but the regional manager reneged the offer after the man began frequenting the location on the daily basis.
Mr. Brooner wants the court to force Burger King to keep providing him with one free whopper a week for the next 22 years (his projected life expectancy until he is 72) or, alternatively, award him close to $10,000 in damages, which is the price equivalent of the 22-years’ worth of weekly whoppers.
Normally, I would read something like this chuckle and move on, but this particular scenario raised many of the same questions that I get from my clients in some of the most complicated contractual disputes, so I thought I’d address some of them here:
Since the promise to provide burgers “for life” is not in writing, is it even enforceable?*
Probably yes. Certain contracts are enforceable even if they are not in writing. Typically, contracts that can be performed within one year are enforceable even if they are not in writing. Since Mr. Brooner’s life could end at any time, including within 12 months from the promise made by the manager, the contract to provide burgers “for life” could terminate within 12 months. Thus, an oral contract to provide burgers “for life” is probably enforceable.
Can Burger King be responsible for a promise made by an employee without authority to make such a promise?
Probably not. An employee of a company can bind the company only if a “reasonable” third party would understand that the employee had the authority to act the way s/he did on behalf of the company. It is unlikely that a “reasonable” person would believe that a manager of a fast food restaurant had the authority to offer free burgers “for life” to a customer on behalf of the company. While in this case it appears to be a clear-cut issue that is likely to cost Mr. Brooner his claim, an agent’s authority to enter into contracts on behalf of his or her employer is often a hotly-litigated issue in contractual disputes.
What if the manager did not mean to offer burgers “for life” but said something like “any time you come in, the burgers are on us”?
This is a tough one. For a valid contract to exist, there must be “a meeting of the minds,” i.e., both people should be on the same page as to what the terms of the agreement are. As you can imagine, countless lawsuits arise out of the parties disagreeing over what the contract is supposed to accomplish. In such situations, a court will typically look at the words of the contract, first, to determine the meaning. If those are ambiguous, then the court will take in evidence from both parties to determine their intent in entering into the agreement. Here, if the court determines that the manager’s promise was ambiguous, the testimony of the manager about what he intended to offer to Brooner will be key.
Since Brooner did not promise anything in return for getting free whoppers, there was no valid contract, right?
Not really. There is an argument here that Brooner gave up his right to sue the restaurant or leave negative comments about it on social media in exchange for getting free whoppers, as giving up a right to do so something in exchange for money or other consideration can create a contract. Indeed, employees constantly give up their right to sue the employer in exchange for a severance payment.
Can Brooner really get the damages he wants on the assumption that he will live 22 more years?
Probably not. Generally speaking, a person seeking contract damages, must prove them with “reasonable certainty.” In a complicated contractual dispute, expert witnesses would testify about what is reasonably certain. In this case, Mr. Brooner’s health condition, average life expectancy, his lifestyle, how long this particular location of Burger King is expected to remain open, and many other factors can play a role in whether he can establish that he is reasonably certain to take advantage of free burgers for the next 22 years.
And there you have it. Next time you get locked in a bathroom of a restaurant, get an executive level person on the phone to authorize a life-time supply of meals, or better, call me to negotiate and paper the deal for you.
*This is a discussion of general legal principles and not a legal advice, as each state has somewhat different contract laws and exceptions and each contractual dispute involves its own set of facts that may affect claims and defenses available to the parties involved in such a dispute.
Leiza Dolghih is a partner at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP in Dallas, Texas and a Co-Chair of the firm’s Trade Secrets and Non-Compete Disputes national practice. Her practice includes commercial, intellectual property and employment litigation. You can contact her directly at Leiza.Dolghih@LewisBrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108.