Woman Sues Chipotle for $2.2 Billion for Using Her Photo Without a Release

Woman Sues Chipotle for $2.2 Billion for Using Her Photo Without a Release

A woman whose photo was taken while eating at a Chipotle in 2006 believes she is entitled to $2.2 billion after it was used without her consent.

The full story is pretty straight forward: Leah Caldwell was eating at a Chipotle in 2006 when photographer Steve Adams took a photo of her without her knowledge. As she left the restaurant, Steve asked her to sign a release, but she refused. Later, Chipotle purchased the photograph from Adams, Photoshopped in an alcoholic beverage near her food, and began using the image for advertising.

The reason Caldwell didn't sue back in 2006 was because she didn't notice her image being used until 2014. Since then, she has seen herself on multiple occasions in multiple markets.

This was actually quite convenient for Caldwell, because she is seeking $2,237,633,000, which is the amount of money she claims Chipotle has made between 2006 and 2015. Once Chipotle's 2016 profits are made public, she wants that added to the total as well. Apparently Caldwell believes that a single picture of her is 100% responsible for all of the success of the restaurant.

I don't think there is any doubt that Caldwell should be compensated for this error, but $2.2 billion may be a bit high. Ten thousand dollars and a year's supply of burritos would be more than enough to compensate for the error, don't you think?

As photographers, this should be a reminder that model releases may be more important than you think. An image you took ten years ago might cost you a couple billion dollars. 

[via Fox News]

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Daniel G's picture

Who company pays you to support chipotle? because you re forget something... mmm.. oh! yes Human rights! she says no! its NO! so .. don't forget ur rigths okay?... and money who cares the amount of money.money its not everything on life i guess ,but some people don't undersntd... cheers!

Patrick Hall's picture

Human rights man

Tony Northrup's picture

You better have a model release or you're gonna owe her billions.

Lee Morris's picture

If I were her I would have gone after the entire GNP of the United States, around 17 Trillion.


Hold up... is this, above, the woman in question? Oh my...

ananta cuffee's picture

I am COMPLETELY intending to use this "wat" image for the rest of my life! It just made my day!

olivier borgognon's picture

Sure the amount is horrendous, and I believe she is working the system as it allows her to. The US legal is quite impressive for that with the "horror" stories from some companies being sued for amazing reasons (dog in microwave, person dying for leaving the driver seat of a camperVan to make himself a coffee whilst on motorway... and so on).

That being said, the photographer didn't get a release, he made a huge mistake, and adding alcohol on the shot was the icing... imagine if that person is a former alcoholic, or whatever.

The photographer could take a serious hit on this one if he delivered images without the model releases and could be forced to cover some of the costs if chippotle have policies in place regarding their photography.

Here is another story :

6 years ago, I was working as a photo editor for a UN organisation. My role was to launch a proper photo library for internal and external use, and cull, edit and deliver images for all the services, and needs of the organisations, ours and any other requiring images. Moreover i had been working on policies for usage rights, model and various releases.

During my final days prior to leaving the company i received a call from a fellow co-worker in an african country. He followed his call with the emails of us being sued for illegal use of a photo.

First thing i had noticed, the campaign had been done 1 year before I had started at this position... at least I could not take the heat for this which was a good point. The issue was the following... The Organisation had purchased stock images from Shutterstock, and had used it for a huge prevention campaign in an african country. Problem ? then person on the photo was found banned from her village, and shamed as people thought she had this disease as she was on the photo. Why was it used ?

The former photo editor didn't have any policy in place, and there was no other control over usage of images before i came in. The releases on stock or any image do not include usage putting the person in a controversial or problematic situation (to make it short).

She was therefore suing the organisation for a huge amount. I sent this to Legal, they dealt with it and as I left the organisation, i didn't get any feedback on this case. But one thing is sure... it is essential to have policies in place, and to be extremely diligent with all the paperwork, including precise use of photos or footage.

Deaqon James's picture

This woman has an overblown sense of self worth.

There's no way she just NOW realized she was being used in their advertising.

About the only thing she really has leg to stand on is since they photoshopped in some alcoholic beverage is misappropriation of likeness. And that may extend to the photographer who sold the image, unless he was originally hired by the company to take photos of patrons.

Yet one more frivolous lawsuit to clog up the system.

Patrick Hall's picture

I wonder if at most she could sue for the money the photographer made off licensing.

Mark Alameel's picture

This is a tough call.

Chipotle should share some responsibility but at what point is due diligence enough? If the images came from iStock, you'd expect to be protected because they are a large enough organization to have a workflow in place for release forms and can bare that responsibility. However, if they're buying photos from freelance artists, then the company should be requesting the release form.

(What do stock companies do; just assume the photographer has the release form? I doubt they're checking every image with a person in it...)

As Chipotle, or any business, they should either have a copy of the release form or a release the source that the source has the release form and assumes and can assume the liability for that image. At least at that point they can claim fraud from the photographer.

However, IMHO, companies should always have the release form. They should also stop buying images from random people and third parties.They should only use images created specifically for them. The liability is just too great nowadays.

Patrick Hall's picture

Oh I just mean the photographer could be on the hook for say $8k or whatever his license fee is and then some damages, but then Chipotle could be on the hook for some massive amount because they plastered the image all over the world and made some amount of sales from the ad. I'm not saying the photographer should face the full damages; I bet they would go after everyone. Unfortunately the Photographer is not going to have the legal muscle that Chipotle will have.

Deaqon James's picture

There is absolutely no way to prove that Chipotle made ANY revenue from the image.

But it's easy to say that this person unless they are a celebrity didn't entice anyone to patronize the brand.

And that is why these types of things end up dismissed more often than not.

After all she claims she didn't know until almost TEN years later she was a part of a national campaign then it's easy to say no revenue was generated by her likeness.

ISA AYDIN's picture

Deagon you are .wrong. Read difference between editorial and commercial licensing

Deaqon James's picture

Well typically for this type of thing the most that has ever been awarded really is $250,000. And those are cases where a photographer takes an image and then sells it to yet a third and unrelated party without a release.

But as the Cameron Diaz case showed, the photographer could do anything he wanted to with the images since he owned copyright. The only thing he COULDN'T do was sell them to a third party.

In this case; if Chipotle hired the photographer (still have to read the article) then they own copyright and since it was shot in a public setting she has no right to privacy and they may very well have every right to use the images as they see fit; making a release just a formality.

Dusty Wooddell's picture

This is my thought as well

Code Trick's picture

So what is your self worth or a loved one.. 1 penny, 1 dollar , 1 million ,1 billion ...or can not count?. If a person lose a limb in an accident due to somebody else fault what is the price 100 dollars or a 100 million . Who is anybody to put a price on self esteem or a loved one life (in all sense) .
Do you know if that person did not want to be shown in any photograph made public. The moment she said NO. the photo should have been marked for NOT PUBLIC USE. otherwise pay the consequence.This no difference if a person is naked public beach . I take a photo BUT the person say NO RELEASE but I publish the photo. I pay the consequence. NO difference here

Code Trick's picture

Now, about that part you said that the photo was made in a public place and she has no right to privacy that is totally correct. I they have the right to use the picture but probably without harmful modification in this case relating her to alcohol. But that is just very thin not good for a strong case. But definitely you (in this case her) has a strong value of self esteem and that you can not quantitate

Deaqon James's picture

Um... You really have no clue about how copyright law works it seems. But you're right. If she showed resistance the image should have as nothing more than a COURTESY not been used.

That whole self worth argument is an absolute B.S. argument. My self worth could be a Billion dollars but unless I'm actually worth that the court will not recognize that number and has set punitive guidelines they use for factoring damages.

It's not a free for all.

Walter Skidmore's picture

The photographer is obviously in the wrong for not having a release and selling the photo to Chipotle but anyone purchasing a photo for commercial use has a responsibility to make sure they verify info, correct? Does anyone know how something like this normally plays out?

Deaqon James's picture

There is no such thing as OBVIOUSLY when dealing with legal matters.

Marcus Taylor's picture

It's the responsibility of the party publishing the photos to be sure they have a release to use the photo the way they are. The photographer would only be at fault if he claimed he had a model release when he didn't.

Michael Rapp's picture

Aside from the fact that I hesitate to put Fox News among the Ivy League of objective journalism, the quoted sum of two point eff-ing two biillion dollars??
(quick, off the cuff, how many zeroes does a billion have, btw?)
I rest my case....

Alex Moan's picture

I'm sure it's been mostly taken down, but does anyone have a link to the photo he shot? I'm really curious of how great this photo of her looked, and why the photographer didn't feel it could've been re-done.

Henry Louey's picture

This is ridiculous

What next? Models suing because they did a shoot for a plastic surgery company and now everyone thinks she is vain?

It will never happy i tell you!! Never!!

David Justice's picture

Why is this Chipotle's fault and not the photographer's? Seems like she chose a shitty lawyer who got her to agree to way too much.

Brent Busch's picture

Because they hired the photog and failed to insure he had a signed release, that's why it's their fault.

Anonymous's picture

Sue for billions is probably the easiest way to get millions or hundreds of thousands if it were to be settled. If she sued for 10 000 and they decided to settle it would be a lot less. Is this not the American dream that we always see on tv in other countries :?

Lee Morris's picture

Sadly it is. Lawsuits are really out of control in this country.

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