10 Extraordinary Class-Action Lawsuits

BOSTON (TheStreet) -- Year after year class-action lawsuits and legal complaints against companies clog the courts and line the pockets of specialized lawyers.

In many cases, aggrieved consumers have legitimate complaints that benefit all of us if successful. False advertising, misleading labels and swept-under-the-rug safety concerns and health hazards are among them.

Many, however, are things that make you go "hmmm." There are strange attempts to extract money from a plaintiff's misguided crusade, naive views or greedy grab for cash and notoriety.

The Universal Studios theme park was sued because a Halloween haunted house was too scary and caused "extreme fear" and "emotional distress."

Your iPhone 4 has a pesky tendency to break when you drop it? There's a class-action suit against Apple ( AAPL) for that. Your Oreck vacuum cleaner doesn't really suck up germs the way ads led you to believe? There's a suit you can sign on to. Kids can click on a Facebook "Like" button? Cue the lawyers.

The parents of Columbine shooting victims will always deserve our sympathy. But was their grief misplaced with a failed effort to sue movie and video game companies for a combined $5 billion because The Basketball Diaries and Duke Nukem (in their eyes) shared responsibility for the massacre due to their violent content?

To be fair, not all cases are as cut-and-dried as the court of public opinion would suggest. Legal minds, years later, still debate the legal merit of a multimillion-dollar suit against McDonald's ( MCD) for serving coffee that may, or may not, have been too hot. Every year, more and more lawsuits, though, beg the question, "What were they thinking?"

The following are 10 lawsuits that left us scratching our heads:

The Huffington Post
The past few years have not treated journalists particularly well. The financial woes faced by print media and the still-evolving landscape of its online offshoots has meant fierce competition for freelance assignments and allowed publishers to low-ball what they pay for farmed-out stories.

Many choose to take what they can get out of necessity and the all-important need for clips and the exposure they need to stand out from the competition.

To build their brand, many talented writers agreed to write for free for The Huffington Post. The dynamics of the win-win changed when founder Arianna Huffington sold the site to AOL ( AOL) in February for $315 million.

In April, some of the bloggers who contributed to the site banded together and launched a class-action suit. They are seeking $105 million in damages on behalf of roughly 9,000 writers who have contributed unpaid pieces since 2005. Part of their argument is that some were offered the potential for future compensation but were strung along with no intent of actually delivering on that promise.

Chalk this up to buyer's remorse. Can a judge really intervene because an agreement that was fine and dandy for all parties be revisited because some fresh acquisition money is now on the table?

Just in case the suit does gain momentum: Hey Dad, remember when I volunteered to mow the lawn as a Father's Day gift? I changed my mind. Please remit $50 per hour for this service.

Nutella, the chocolaty spread beloved by kids, Europeans and hipsters, is being targeted in a class-action lawsuit first filed a by mother in San Diego.

The suit was filed in February against Ferrero USA, the company that makes Nutella, to take it to task for allegedly tricking consumers into thinking it is a healthful snack choice.

Here's where the suit may seem to have some merit. Many think of the tasty spread as a peanut butter substitute. Nutella, however, as its taste might suggest, is basically spreadable candy -- loaded with fat and sugar. To suggest that it is "healthy" to any degree is an exaggeration, if not an outright lie. Score one for the plaintiff.

But here is where we suspect the Nutella defense team will earn their keep. The ads positioning Nutella as good for you use the old breakfast cereal standby of picturing the product, surrounded by milk and fruit, and citing it as "part of this nutritious breakfast." In other words: "As pictured here, this item is an add-on to all the other things in this ad that are actually good for you." It's a feat of verbal gymnastics that has gone on for years.

The claim that its "ad campaign includes images and videos of wholesome families and happy, healthy children enjoying Nutella for breakfast before going to school" is hardly convincing. No piece of effective advertising has ever promoted wares by photographing a haggard, track-marked beast shoving her obese brats off to be wards of the state.

Most of all, we wonder why choosy mothers might not choose to take a break from analyzing stock art and instead read the clearly damning evidence right there on a Nutella jar's label -- 100 calories per tablespoon and 21 grams of sugar per serving. (Also, that sugar is listed as the first ingredient might be a tip-off). The nutritional information is pretty clear that this ain't Kashi.

If the suit is duly certified as a class-action suit, and eventually ruled upon favorably, the plaintiffs will force Ferrero to not only cease and desist from any deceptive advertising, but to "destroy" the materials. A new ad campaign admitting to past exaggerations and misleading materials would also be required, along with a full refund for anyone who bought a jar of Nutella since Jan. 1, 2000.

Chuck E. Cheese
A while back, the powers that be in Las Vegas had the less-than-brilliant idea to market Sin City as kid friendly, an eyebrow-raising tactic that was quickly abandoned. But if a class-action lawsuit filed earlier this month is any indication, the kids of America can still get their gambling chops down while munching pizza at Chuck E. Cheese.

A San Diego real estate agent and mother filed a suit against the rodent-decorated den of alleged childhood iniquity claiming its many arcade games were not far removed from being slot machines -- games of chance where 25-cent tokens were gambled to win prizes. In the filing, she compared the emotional roller coaster children face as akin to "adults who gamble their paychecks or the mortgage payment."

The pizza chain's owner, CEC Entertainment ( CEC), put little stock in the case and sought its dismissal. They won at least a partial victory last week when the federal case was dropped, replaced with a suit at the state level. The broader case is now only focused on a demand to remove 11 game machines considered by the plaintiff to be the worst offenders.

Happy Meals
Health conscious parents -- and those looking to meddle in how others raise their kids -- have long targeted McDonald's as Public Enemy No. 1.

The fast food chain, through years of highly effective advertising, has become a beloved treat. Waving a vial of crack at The Port Authority Bus Terminal probably wouldn't get a mob rushing at you the way announcing "we're going to McDonald's" would from a group of kids.

Last year, San Francisco officials approved an ordinance that bans kids' toys from fast food establishments that don't fit their definition of healthy. Late last year, a second salvo in the war against the Golden Arches was fired when a Sacramento mother joined forces with the Center for Science in the Public Interest to file a lawsuit that seeks class-action status.

"McDonald's exploits very young California children and harms their health by advertising unhealthy Happy Meals with toys directly to them," the filing reads. "Children 8 years old and younger do not have the cognitive skills and the developmental maturity to understand the persuasive intent of marketing and advertising. Thus, McDonald's advertising featuring toys to bait children violates California law because it is inherently deceptive and unfair. McDonald's advertising is also unfair to its competitors, who do not choose to attract very young children with the lure of a toy."

"Children nonetheless influence the purchasing decisions of their parents," it adds. "McDonald's exploits that influence, by bombarding children with advertisements for Happy Meals with toys, knowing that it will result in kids nagging parents to purchase nutritionally poor Happy Meals for their children."

The suit seeks a ban on all Happy Meal toys in California. To date, a lawsuit demanding that mothers and fathers deploy actual parenting skills instead of just blaming a corporation has yet to be filed.

William Shatner doesn't really fight ninjas to get you low airfares. In the wild, bears don't buy toilet paper or sell fabric softener. Babies are not inclined to make money as day traders.

That the physics of TV commercials don't always correspond to the real world is something Michigan resident Richard Overton may not have grasped back in 1991 when he filed suit against Anheuser-Busch ( BUD).

In his filing, Overton wrote that the defendant's "deceptive and/or misleading advertisements" led him and the public at large "to purchase and consume products which the defendant knows, or has reason to know, are inherently dangerous and likely to cause serious health problems, temporary and/or permanent impairment to the consumers' mental abilities, serious addictions, and possibly death."

Set aside the fact that even the ancients who stumbled on fermentation figured out its effects and that the intoxicating, addictive nature of booze is hardly a well-kept secret. Overton's suit stretches credulity when he cites a commercial illustrating his betrayal by the King of Beers.

The advertisements feature "a series of scenarios using a beer truck and two young men."

"The truck, and deductively Bud Light, are shown to be the source of fantasies coming to life, including otherwise impossible manifestations of scenic tropical settings, beautiful women and men engaged in endless and unrestricted merriment."

Sadly, the commercials fail to show that real-world beer consumption leads to far more finite and restrictive merriment. Hot, bikini-clad women -- as modern science has proved over the centuries -- do not appear out of thin air.

Oh yeah, and the cannonball one of the men does into a pool? It could lead to serious injury, the plaintiff points out.

"To represent such actions as possible is grossly misleading of the true nature of the products being promoted," the suit concludes, seeking $10,000 in damages and a prohibition on future claims of a beverage-induced sexy party.

Taco Bell
A recent class-action lawsuit against Taco Bell and its parent company Yum Brands ( YUM) illustrates how legal action can backfire.

Some companies will agree to settle cases to avoid mounting legal fees and bad PR. Taco Bell relished an attempt to answer a besmirching of the quality of its beef, going so far as to take out a full page ad in The Wall Street Journal to thank the plaintiffs.

The lawsuit, withdrawn in April, was filed originally by a California woman who demanded that Taco Bell stop calling its main protein "beef" because, allegedly, it contained little to justify that definition.

The plaintiff said there was only 50% actual beef. Taco Bell countered that it was actually 88%, rounded out with a 12% "signature recipe" of seasonings and binders.

Threats of countersuits were followed by the case being withdrawn.

Only Taco Bell, perhaps, could score a victory by proclaiming its filling was 88% real meat. Nevertheless, we defy anyone who sided with the plaintiff to find us even a single person who chose a Taco Bell meal based on its healthy, wholesome ingredients.

Jimmy Carter
Former president Jimmy Carter, who has become a prolific house builder and author in the years since he occupied the White House, was targeted by a pro-Israel class-action suit this year over his view of the Middle East peace process.

His book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, published by Simon & Schuster in 2006, was singled out by supporters of Israel for marketing that implied his view was "truth," as opposed to opinion, and for spreading "anti-Israel propaganda" with "demonstrable falsehoods."

The publisher shot back, calling the $5 million in sought damages a "chilling" attack on free speech.

Earlier this month, the lawsuit was dropped, prompting a statement from Simon & Schuster: "In the face of a powerful argument for the rights of free speech for authors and publishers, the plaintiffs wisely withdrew their action. We hope that they will consider this the end of the matter."

Playboy Magazine, in all its business variations, has been accused of many things, including sexism. The new twist on a class-action suit filed in February is that the "sexism" being alleged is against men.

A California man, David Long Jr., had scored an invite to the Playboy Mansion, a ticket to a party at Hef's grotto that would surely be the envy many daydreaming males.

Not so much for Long, who took offense at what he called "gender-based" pricing for the 2009 soiree. He claims that while men had to pay $625 for entry, women deemed "hot" by the staff were allowed in for free. Plain Janes, in the eyes of the bouncers, were charged up to $350.

Anyone at that "White Party" or other Playboy Mansion events would be compensated if he prevails in claiming they were denied equal treatment. Playboy would also be barred from continuing such practices in the future.

Long's effort to be the Rosa Parks of lad mags could have far-reaching impact on nightlife as we know it. The velvet rope could be deemed unconstitutional. No longer would bouncers be able to keep Ed Hardy-garbed dudes cooling their Axe-scented jets while cute chicks giggle their way to the front of the line. On that level, he may be onto something. But to think that the infamous Playboy Mansion would be anything less than a looks-based meritocracy is a bit of a stretch. Then again, they do still let Pauley Shore in.

EA Sports
A class-action suit in 2008 blamed EA Sports ( ERTS) for alleged price gouging with its Madden line of football-themed video games.

The popular game, they say, cost $30 in 2005; today it costs around $59 at full retail price. They blame an exclusivity deal with the NFL for crowding out competitors that might otherwise lead to a pricing war that would benefit buyers.

The suit's Hail Mary pass misses its receiver on two very basic levels. First, the game is often available for as little as $30 on sale, and year after year has been reduced in price once the initial rush for the new release subsides. Secondly, have any of these guys visited a GameStop ( GME) recently? It isn't easy to find a new game for Xbox or PlayStation that doesn't hit the street with a $59 price tag, which seems to be an industry standard.

In essence, the lingering lawsuit demands restitution for the fact that hardcore gamers shouldn't have to, you know, skip being first in line to play a new game if doing so means they pay full price. Maybe they could add in a clause that grants free Funyons and Mountain Dew in perpetuity while they are at it.

-- Written by Joe Mont in Boston.

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