12 Of The Strangest Fast Food Lawsuits

Most of us pop into a fast food restaurant every now and then — maybe stopping at a McDonald's for a quick lunch during the workweek, or at a Subway at a rest stop during a long drive. That's especially true if you're in a state with a lot of fast food restaurants. No matter where we get them, we don't give fast food burgers, chicken fingers, or foot-long subs much thought beyond a meal. But to a handful of people, these fast-food restaurants are more than a quick meal — they're subjects of fierce litigations, dealing with everything from a poisoned Coca-Cola to a rodent baked into a bun.

Things tend to get weird in court anyway, but these are some of the strangest lawsuits aimed at fast food restaurants to ever grace the witness stand. While some of these plaintiffs were clearly after a quick buck — just ask the lady who put someone's cut-off finger into her Wendy's chili — others' health, and even lives, were put at risk when they decided to purchase a quick bite. They had no choice but to bring their favorite comfort food spot to court in order to protect their fellow customers. 

Chick-fil-A: A woman found a rat baked into her bun

No matter which Chick-fil-A you drive past, there's always a long line of customers snaking around the drive-thru. But Philadelphia resident Ellen Manfalouti likely wishes she hadn't been one of them after she found a dead rat baked into the bottom bun of her chicken sandwich. Manfalouti purchased the sandwich in 2016 from a Langhorne, Pennsylvania restaurant location. According to her Bucks County lawsuit, she bit into the sandwich after returning to her job at an insurance agency and felt something funny on the bottom of the bun. When she put it on the table, she realized it had an addition she hadn't ordered; and it had unsightly whiskers and a tail.

Manfalouti quickly headed to the hospital after understandable nausea, and then, she contacted the Chick-fil-A store where she purchased the culprit. But when franchise owner Dave Heffernan didn't respond to her belly-flipping story, she went to a lawyer, seeking $50,000 from Heffernan and the store for both physical and mental damages. For weeks after the incident, she could barely stomach the thought of eating, and she also started seeing a therapist to deal with her newfound anxiety and insomnia as a direct result of the furry find. Other weird things have also happened at Chick-fil-A, like the time a suspicious-looking nugget was found there.

McDonald's: Its coffee was too hot

If there's one strange fast-food lawsuit you're probably aware of — whether it's due to a Toby Keith song or a "Seinfeld" episode — it's probably this one. In 1994, an elderly woman sued McDonald's in Albuquerque, New Mexico, after her hot coffee spilled onto her lap. She'd purchased the coffee from the drive-thru in 1992. Since then, the story has been the subject of ridicule and has become the poster child for ridiculous lawsuits. However, there's more than meets the mouth here.

The coffee was so hot that it left third-degree burns on 79-year-old Stella Liebeck's inner thighs, even though she was wearing sweatpants when the coffee spilled. Even scarier, that burning temperature was exactly the temperature that McDonald's mandated its coffee to be served at — which had burned hundreds of other people the same way. After Liebeck had to get skin grafts to heal her skin, she hoped to settle the case with McDonald's for what she had to pay in health expenses through the ordeal — $20,000. But when McDonald's only offered $800 in return, Liebeck took the situation to court. Liebeck did not win the $3 million in damages. The judge reduced the amount to $480,000, and McDonald's and Liebeck went on to reach a private settlement.

Subway: Its tuna products allegedly didn't include real tuna

We were all pretty grossed out when, in 2021, a lawsuit cropped up that claimed that those tuna sandwiches and wraps we had been eating from Subway allegedly contained no tuna at all. According to a lawsuit, samples of the so-called Subway tuna were tested and were found to contain ingredients that made it look like tuna but didn't include tuna, or even fish — although the tuna products still cost more than sandwiches made with other meats. Plaintiffs Karen Dhanowa and Nilima Amin of the California Bay Area hoped to make their claim into a class-action lawsuit and earn money back for thousands of California Subway customers. But, things ultimately fell flat.

The lawsuit was dismissed in 2023 after Amin fell pregnant and experienced such harsh health effects she felt she couldn't continue with the litigation. The court was more than happy to agree with the retraction and dismissed the case as well as barred it from ever being brought to court again. However, the case didn't end there. Subway, which claimed from the beginning that the lawsuit was frivolous and it serves completely wild-caught tuna, asked for nearly $618,000 in sanctions. It even founded subwaytunafacts.com to share what it deemed to be the truth behind its tuna sandwiches and wraps.

Panda Express: An employee was pressured to shed her clothing

And to think, all Jennifer Spargifiore wanted was a better gig at Panda Express. In 2019, the young woman, hoping to earn a promotion, headed to a self-improvement seminar at the behest of the Chinese chain restaurant she worked for. However, she was shocked to find that rather than helping the employees bond or improve their leadership skills, she was instead pushed to shed her clothing down to her undergarments and hug a man at the session, in the same state of undress, in front of her coworkers. She fled the session early and just days later, her job at Panda Express was over.

In 2021, Spargifiore filed a lawsuit against both Panda Express and the company that led the seminar — Alive Seminars and Coaching Academy — claiming that the situation made her a victim of sexual battery, a hostile work environment, and infliction of emotional distress. In her civil complaint, she didn't ask for a certain dollar amount to assuage her pain. However, Panda Express retorted that it had no control over the coaching academy, was "deeply concerned" by Spargifiore's allegations, and didn't condone what had allegedly happened within the session's walls.

Wendy's: A customer supposedly found a finger in her chili

Wendy's customers were horrified — so much so that the chain lost a whopping $21 million –- after Anna Ayala supposedly bit into a cut-off finger in her bowl of Wendy's chili in March 2005. Ayala filed a lawsuit against the burger franchise, but quickly, the plot thickened. It was soon determined that none of the San Jose, California Wendy's employees knew anything about the finger (or had lost a finger); Ayala had a penchant for suing for settlements (she had done it more than a dozen times); and no accidents had occurred where the Wendy's food had been prepared. Ayala dropped the claim just a month later, but that was far from the end of the story.

Wendy's decided to go after Ayala itself, and it was eventually proven that the chain was actually in the right. Turns out, Ayala's husband's coworker lost the finger in an accident and Ayala and her husband, James Plascencia, decided to "borrow" it. She even cooked it before bringing to Wendy's so that it would appear to have been simmering in the chili. But after cops determined the scam for what it was, Ayala was sentenced to nearly a decade in prison, although she got out after just four years. She was also banned from ever visiting Wendy's again.

Burger King: Started a feud with Slipknot

There aren't many times in history when a burger chain has gone up against a heavy metal band, but 2005 was a weird time, apparently. It all started when Burger King asked Slipknot to be a part of its new campaign to get chicken fries out to the masses. In the offer, Slipknot would be featured in a TV ad and would make $120,000. However, the band turned it down. So, imagine their surprise when another masked metal band, a fictional line-up called COQ ROQ, was featured in the ad instead. The ad itself was just the beginning. The made-up band also had an E.P. with four songs and a tour planned (which never came to fruition), all under the premise that snacking on chicken under the guise of a French fry was "a rebellious way to eat chicken." Slipknot promptly filed a lawsuit claiming copyright infringement against Burger King.

But Burger King wasn't going down without a chicken fight. It sued Slipknot right back, saying that Slipknot was actually guilty of copyright infringement itself because its look and style were similar to other bands like KISS, Mushroomhead, GWAR, and Insane Clown Posse. So, to avoid a long litigious journey and interesting questions about trademark law, both Burger King and Slipknot called their lawsuits quits.

McDonald's: A man was allegedly drugged by a Coca-Cola

It's no secret that Coca-Cola isn't good for us, but in 2016, Utah resident Trevor Walker was still in for a shock when a few sips of the soda that he purchased from McDonald's caused him to pass out and necessitated a trip to the hospital. He and his family were even more shocked when the hospital found buprenorphine, a drug used to help addicts wean off opioids, in his urine. Walker's wife then observed that her husband's Coca-Cola looked a little funky and called the police. Sure enough, the same substance was found in the Coca-Cola. Walker suspected that a McDonald's employee had poisoned his Coca-Cola, but he was never able to prove it because the security footage of that day's restaurant activities had been deleted.

Two years later, Walker filed a lawsuit against Coca-Cola, its distributor, and McDonald's, claiming that the incident — which nearly cost him his life, as he was on another medication that could react fatally with the buprenorphine — caused him anxiety and PTSD that required counseling for the rest of his days. McDonald's did not issue an apology or take responsibility for the frightening event. In 2019, it told a judge that the incident was entirely the franchisee's fault, casting doubt on whether the episode ever even happened.

Arby's: A man found human skin on his sandwich

David Scheiding had an inkling that the sour taste from the Arby's chicken sandwich that he purchased in Tipp City, Ohio was due to more than just bad chicken. Turns out, he was right. After biting into the sandwich, he lifted the bun and found a piece of skin that was nearly an inch in length. After he threw up and contacted authorities, the mystery came together quickly.

Since the restaurant manager had a bandage on his finger, health authorities asked what had happened. As it turns out, he had accidentally sliced his skin while cutting lettuce — but didn't notice that he didn't retrieve his own flesh while cleaning up the mess, or that it had ended up on a pile of lettuce that later made it onto Scheiding's sandwich. It wasn't a purposeful placing, GZK Inc., which owns that Arby's location, later said. Arby's offered a settlement to Scheiding but he rejected it and instead, sued the fast-food restaurant for more than $50,000. But that wasn't the only gross debacle to ever happen to Arby's. A dead body was also found in an Arby's freezer in 2023. 

Subway: A knife was found baked into the sandwich bread

Subway may bake its bread daily, but in 2008, one of its customers was in for a sharp surprise. When 26-year-old John Agnesini of New York ordered a foot-long Cold Cut Trio sandwich, he didn't expect one ingredient of that trio to be a 7-inch knife. But that's exactly what he found after taking a few nibbles of the sandwich. He realized something was amiss after tasting the bizarre flavor of the melted knife handle that was infused into the bread, and later experienced stomach pain and nausea. But despite his sickness, he was actually lucky — had Agnesini begun eating his sandwich at the other end, his bites would have included the sharp end of the blade.

After the incident, Agnesini's coworker at the magazine where he worked called Subway to alert the chain of the event, but they didn't seem to care too much, and they didn't apologize, either. So, Agnesini hired a lawyer and filed a $1 million lawsuit. Although he didn't get his million-dollar payout, he did walk away with $20,000. Unsurprisingly, he never returned to Subway for his worktime lunch breaks. 

Popeye's: A man choked because he didn't have a plastic knife

In 2015, Mississippi attorney Paul Newton, Jr. was clearly in a rush to eat after he arrived back at his Gulfport office with a bag of Popeye's chicken, red beans, rice, a biscuit, and a soda. So much so that when he discovered his bag contained a spork -– but no plastic knife to cut his meat with — he dug into the chicken with his hands and teeth instead. He would soon find that if you eat in haste, you repent in leisure. Newton quickly began choking on the chicken breast, high-tailed it to the emergency room, and had to get a costly surgery to remove the chicken from his throat.

But Newton wasn't going down without making sure that other Popeye's customers didn't suffer the same fate. He sued the fried chicken chain restaurant, asking to have his medical expenses paid for and to also be paid out for his pain. Plus, he asked that going forward, all Popeye's customers get the plastic knife they so deserved. Unfortunately, there's a chance still today you'll only get a spork to eat your chicken from Popeye's. Newton dropped the lawsuit the following year, claiming that the extreme comments aimed at his loved ones due to the lawsuit had become too much to bear.

Taco Bell: Allegedly stole the Doritos taco idea from a prisoner

Gary Cole, a 49-year-old man at a maximum-security prison in Colorado, had a lot of time on his hands during his 25-year prison sentence. So much so that he kept busy by creating products for his business, which he named Divas and Ballers, that included clothes, hot sauce, body oil, and, allegedly in 2010, taco shells made of Doritos. After Taco Bell launched its popular Doritos Locos Tacos, which were such a hit that Taco Bell had to hire more employees just to handle its booming business, Cole claimed that he actually had the idea first. 

So how did Taco Bell get a hold of a prison inmate's groundbreaking idea? According to the 2013 lawsuit that Cole filed against Taco Bell, Pepsi Co., Yum Brands, and Frito Lay, a letter with his idea was snagged by the U.S. Postal Service, which then shared the idea with Taco Bell. Taco Bell wasn't having it. It responded that its team was always busy cooking up new ideas, and it does not use any ideas taken from outside parties. Taco Bell continued to say that the idea for the Doritos taco shell was in fact invented in 2009, once the chain decided to try and give new life to typical taco shells.

Popeye's: Ran out of chicken sandwiches

When Popeye's fried chicken sandwiches, topped with pickles and a proprietary sauce, launched in 2019 amid a Twitter feud, they instantly sold out across the United States. Americans clamored to see if the new sandwich was really better than Chick-fil-A's iconic counterpart. Would-be customers drove from store to store and lined up to get their hands on the sandwich. However, Chris Barr of East Ridge, Tennessee perhaps took the sandwich scavenger hunt a bit more seriously than the rest of us.

He gave a man who he met on Craigslist, who claimed to be a Popeye's employee, $25 to get him one of the coveted sandwiches. Then, he drove to several Popeye's restaurants trying to get a taste, doing $1,500 worth of damage to his car in the process. Oh, and his friends also made fun of him. So, to regain his honor –- as well as his $1,525 –- Barr sued Popeye's in 2019, claiming that the chain committed "false advertising" and "deceptive business practices by entity to public," and that he was personally owed $5,000 from the debacle. The trial went to court the following January, and there have been no further updates. "I can't get happy; I have this sandwich on my mind. I can't think straight. It just consumes you," Barr told the Chattanooga Times Free Press in November 2019.