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Jul 2, 2007 12:21 PM

Philly Critic Craig LaBan Sued By Resto

AND A JUDGE MIGHT FORCE HIM TO TESTIFY, thus exposing the formerly annonymous critic to the eyes of restauranteurs.

All because LaBan called a piece of meat: "miserably tough and fatty".

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  1. Interesting on many levels.

    1. I don't know the legalities enough, but it seems silly to endanger a person's livelihood at this stage of the proceedings. If there's enough factual basis to move forward with the case and proceed to trial, clearly he'd have to testify, but that's just the people in the room. If he's found not guilty or the case goes away (as, I hope, based on common sense it will) then all that will have happened is the legal system has needlessly made it harder for someone to do their job.

      And what in god's name would be a "steak sandwich without bread?" Why not strip? Honestly, its just stupid.

      1. It is a suit that will go nowhere. Why? Because it has been long established by the courts that a restaurant and restaurant owner are - upon opening their doors - public figures. Therefore, the plaintiffs are going to have to prove malice. Good luck on that, particularly since the critic said right after the comment about he meat that the crab cake was "excellent."

        Yeah, that's malicious right there!

        1. This restaurant just failed PR 101.

          - It's incredibly tough to sue a media company for libel. Even if the article was wrong, they are protected. You pretty much need an email or memo from the critic saying he/she was out to nail the place, or some similar smoking gun. Otherwsie it's protected speech, right or wrong, love it or hate it.

          - Regardless of accuracy, the place will now and forever be associated with a fight over "touch and fatty meat." That link to their name is now in 4,000 databases and electronic archives.

          - Someone once said, never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel. Or who owns one of the top regional websites. Or who employs the finest First Amendment lawyers one can find.

          Bottom line: The restaurant got a bad review. The should have let it pass or worked on a positive local ad/PR campaign to counter it. Suing the critic was a stupid course of action. How bad? Well I'm 2,400 miles away and reading about this on the Associated Press.How's that for a review?

          As for the critic getting tagged? I wonder. It sucks, but to protect the larger legal themes they have to get exposed in this case. That said, how many places are that savvy to recognize a critic? They don't use their names to reserve or pay. How many media savvy owners/chefs keep tabs on all of their customers, every night of the week? I'm guessing if a place sucks, most of us could walk in with media credentials around our neck, a laptop on the table, and we could ask permission to scan the menu and they still wouldn't have a clue.

          4 Replies
          1. re: tastyjon

            Very difficult for the resto to prevail for libel. The proof & damages standard they must reach is so high. Bad idea on all fronts.

            1. re: tastyjon

              I doubt the critic is as anonymous as he thinks he is. An instructor at the school I went to, who had worked front-of-the-house at several local fine dining restaurants, told me that most had booklets containing photos of the local food critics that all front-of-the-house staff were required to study so they could spot a critic if he/she came in. One of the restaurants had even hired a PI to track down and photograph a new anonymous critic for one of the local papers. This was before the internet so things are a little different now, but restaurants who live or die based on the reviews of critics are going to do everything they can to stack the deck in thier favor.

              1. re: tastyjon

                I don't agree that the restaurant will necessarily suffer as a result. They will get publicity, which is generally a good thing -- and what they may get publicity for is for contradicting a reviewer. Not everyone considers writers -- and reviewers -- to be 100% accurate; newspapers are not considered to be the untouchables they once were. The restaurant may or may not be tagged only with "tough and fatty meat". They may also be tagged as "the restaurant that stood up to a reviewer". Not everyone puts reviewers up on a pedestal.

                My completely unsupported guess is that in the long run as long as the restaurant survives it will benefit as a result, because some people will remember the name of the place long after they've forgotten why they remember it. Some people may avoid it, but how many? Those who bother to read the negative review may also read about the lawsuit, possibly mitigating the deleterious effect of the review.

                My guess is that they won't prevail in the suit, but the publicity may be worth the cost. If the other critiques of the restaurant are pretty good -- including most importantly those of friends and family -- those who remember the negative review may downgrade the reputation of the reviewer, not the restaurant.

                1. re: Richard 16

                  In most markets, this may be true, but Philly is DOMINATED by Laban and his reviews. It's kind of the perfect storm- a big enough city that there is a credible, critical reviewer, yet not the size of a New York where there are more than one person that make a difference.
                  My guess is that the restaurant is going down, based on the bad publicity, Laban's influence, and now the bad karma with the food "cogniscenti" of a bogus lawsuit.

              2. One of the interesting aspects of the case (and one that makes it different than most restaurant vs. critic lawsuits) is that it turns not on OPINION, which is generally considered protected speech, but on a question of FACT.

                One of the reasons restaurants seldom win these kinds of suits is that what is said almost always characterized as an opinion. Here, however, the restaurant is claiming that he misstated facts. If the reviewer did, his comment may not be protected speech. I

                But, as seth chadwick pointed out, it is also true that courts generally hold restaurants to be "public figures" that must prove malice.

                Truth is an absolute defense. If he were served a strip steak, he wins.

                Reagarding "unmasking him." This is admittedly a big deal to some critics. Anyone read Ruth Reichl's book "Garlic and Sapphires?"

                1 Reply
                1. re: C. Hamster

                  I think it goes even beyond that. If the critic made an honest error and called the cut of meat A when it was B, it still doesn't even come close to the standard of proving malice. There has to be a reckless disregard for the truth, and I doubt any court is going to say that calling a strip a ribeye or a filet or whatever is reckless disregard.

                  Sadly, I weep for the amount of money that is going to be spent and how long this is going to tie up court resources so that a prideful, ego-driven restaurant owner can show the world how is life ended because someone called his cut of meat fatty.