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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Previous comments
Anonymous's picture

Agreed, even people not realising how stupid some of them are, the likes of someone wanting to sue Starbucks for millions due to too much ice in their iced coffee or some silly thing. Everyone is trying to make a quick buck and that they don't see how this all started small and became a snowball affect to bring out lawsuits like this one.

Brett Turnage's picture

She has a case because of the use of her likeness without her authorization, but the price of the legal claim is ridiculous.

Chris Adval's picture

This is very odd... selling unstaged, candid scenarios as advertising images. Usually these are fine art street photography or used for editorial purposes. I tried to submitting stuff on 500px but did not have the location release of the Zoo I shot at, so they put it under editorial stock only. No idea how Chipotle got the image, so if they outright hired out photographers to get candid shots and ask for releases, and hope for the best or stock images, no clue, but this is interesting to see how it will develop.

michael buehrle's picture

the subway gig is open too. maybe she can apply for that as well ?

Spy Black's picture

Well, you always have to overshoot a little bit to make sure you get what you want...

Dan Howell's picture

I share the opinions of many here, so I'm not going to add to that. What I do want to express is my frustration that the headline grabbing announcements put the story out there for many to see and rage over, but we seldom hear about the resolution with anywhere close to the same amount of attention. It has been hard to follow situations like this where the end is far more important that the beginning. Similarly the cases of photographer Carol Highsmith vs. Getty over public domain photos; model suing Joshua Resnick over stock photos even though she signed a model release.

Please lets all follow this case. We learn nothing from the headline. We will all learn from the resolution.

Tony Clark's picture

As a friend has said, it's nice to want things. Depending on how they used the image, I believe that she will settle out of court and for nothing near that $2.2B.

A. I. Borj's picture

$2.2 Billion is a lot of guacamole. ;-)

Ryan Ketterman's picture

I'd take it in trade... as many times as I've eaten Chipotle at BWI.... jeesh. Their guac ads up.

Ralph Hightower's picture

2.2 Billion? I could understand possibly suing for 2.2 million. But this woman is just a gold digger looking for a sugar daddy. Good luck with getting that billion dollars. Chipotle probably can't pay out that money after trying to recover from their food contamination problems.

Mokhtar Chahine's picture

I really want to see this expensive photo.

ISA AYDIN's picture

Well i think billions are funny but couple of millions is definitely what she deserves. Chipotle is also responsible for distribution of image without permission or at least they have had to double check it before printing. That photographer is just an idiot if he sold the image after being refused and he deserves a big punishment. For those who say it was public place, first you have to read about editorial and commercial licensing . You are not allowed to manipulate an image in anyway if it is editorial especially without permission and use it for commercial purposes. Thats why Chipotle should be sued as well. Adding alcohol in an image? Really? Chipotle management where were you hired and who hired you?)))
I am commercial photographer with 15 years of experience and I never did even a single shot without model release and agreement! Fine is the least photographer deserves!

Scott Lewis's picture

Wow... no one checks.

She is suing for an amount over $75,000 (because the final amount in unknown). The filing is mentioning that according to Civil Code 3344 she is entitled to amounts from the profits... which is quoted as 2,237,633. She is claiming $750 in actual damages over 3 times (the initial place and the two other restaurants that she saw her photo on their wall in 2014 & 2015) plus all her legal fees, etc.

This is click bait reporting at its best.

Sorry guys, just because the laywers list the full profits of the company because the Civil Code allows them to does NOT mean the person suing is some major money grubbing person looking for a sugar daddy.

She is right!!! And the media is to blame for blowing this way out of proportion and contributing to why the public thinks there are so many frivolousness lawsuits. .

Sounds like a smear campaign that was likely started by Chipolte (though I CANNOT confirm that) to gain favoritism on their side. Like the woman that sued McDonald's over the spilled coffee. She asked for the $60K in medical expenses she incurred from 3rd degree burns that required her to get skin graphs and such. When McD only offer a few hundred dollars that is when she sued (i think, but not in the mode to look it up, for $220,000) for medical expenses and legal expenses and such. Not millions like the media smear campaign McD launch against her told. Every one today still quotes it as a case of people starting crazy lawsuits. Yet the McD case was real. They were selling coffee at temperatures about 50 degrees hotter than most places, and had numerous complaints of scalding. They eventually fixed it and lowered the temp of their coffee. And ruined a woman's reputation in the process. Nice!

Check your facts before you continue the smear campaign for the big companies.

Robert Pierce's picture

Sorry but you're wrong about the McDonald's case. Coffee is STILL served at those temperatures today that they claimed were dangerous. At Mcdonalds, Starbucks, and all major coffee places. They never changed the temp. Some places are even hotter than 180 degrees. Coffee is... Well... Supposed to be hot. Court cases like the one McDonald's lost are now routinely and repeatedly thrown out of court and are seen as without merit. That she won and McDonald's lost was a historical fluke. Nobody wins those cases even at hotter temperatures. Nobody. And they've tried.

Scott Lewis's picture

Missed the point completely... Do your research before spreading misinformation.

Lee Morris (sorry) did nothing towards a simple Google search to see if the lawsuit was actually for 2 Billion. And no one else in the comments did. Nor did the first 10 articles about this on Google. However, it took only one extra minute for me to find the link the to court document, that shows she is really suing for $75K (approximately), $2,250 plus legal fees and such, and some amount of profits. And that seems to be in line with what everyone here seems to believe is correct. A decent amount of money. Oh, and the photographer IS names in teh lawsuit as well, so there... he is going to get some blame.

You on the other hand seem to think that there are so many cases like this that are thrown out of court. You are believing what they want you to believe:


* The goals of these attacks on the system are clear: to insulate corporations from lawsuits for their reckless behavior and to strip the rights of injured consumers who would be entitled to compensation.

As for the McD case:


McD refussed to pay her medical bills but for an offer of $800. They were sued before (in 1986) for hot coffee. Christopher Appleton, a McDonald’s quality assurance manager, who testified that “he was aware of this risk . . . and had no plans to turn down the heat.”

* McD even failed to settle in mediation for $225K, or settle the day before the trial began.

* Evidence at trial was simply damning. It was learned that McDonald’s was aware of more than 700 claims brought against it between 1982 and 1992 due to people being burned by its coffee.

* Moreover, McDonald’s had previously spent over $500,000 in settling these prior coffee-burn claims.

* What can be learned from this case? First, the McDonald’s coffee case is not a frivolous lawsuit, as many people believe. In fact, Liebeck had a very strong case against a very unsympathetic corporate defendant.

Robert Pierce's picture

Go buy a coffee at Starbucks or McDonalds. It's going to be the SAME temperature it was when she got burned - 180 degrees. Nobody has lowered the temperature of coffee. It's an industry standard. She won unfairly and it is seen as a garbage court case decades after the fact. McDonalds was unfairly punished. Hot coffee cases are routine for every coffee roaster and are routinely tossed out of court. Nobody's getting rich off suing Starbucks for making hot coffee.

Lenn Long's picture

All I know is that will buy a lot of burrito bowls... I think the photographer should have put a blanket release on the doors that stated in clear language that if you enter the premises you are subject to being photographed. It's a public place, so I'm not sure how the court will react with todays social media world. I snap a pic in Chipotle, I hashtag them, they see it and share it. How do you quantify commercial use in these situations?

Richard Peterson's picture

Reminds me of something that happened to me in the early 1990s. An alternative magazine called Photo Metro published a gallery of my collaborations I create with my wife. She creates exotic frames around my photos, mostly nudes in my part. i used a simple arts-use-only model release, which the model in one photo had signed. The gallery in the art-based photo mag included many very small images with several different people as models. One of the women in one the photos contacted me and claimed the use was too public and no longer in an art context, and she was offended that about 50% of one nipple showed in the image, and I had ruined her life. She then claimed that publication of this image in a low-circulation underground art publication would be instrumental in launching my career, and as such she should be entitled to 20% of all the money I make for the rest of my life. This brings up the question of the difference between a commercial use and an art use, which seems like a very grey area. As a rule of thumb, I've understood that a person in an environmental scene in a public place who is a small part of the context does not need to be released. Henri Cartier Bresson never had a single release signed. However, if you were creating personal art and you were to focus on a close-up on a single individual, I'm guessing it would be a smart idea to have a release signed, even for art. In the article above, which happened very near me in Colorado, I would have been very careful to obtain and present to the client a release as it is clearly for a commercial use, and I would totally respect the rights of a person who did not want their image used. It might be a case where the photographer lost track of who was who when trying to match releases to the people in the photos. Of course, everything is likely to change soon as the greedy corporate based Trump administration has already threatened to destroy or dampen our ability to copyright images.

Jon Dize's picture

Psychopaths! My mom told me there would be psychopaths, but she did not tell me there would be so many.
Cuz God knows it was her image that allowed Chipotle to make $billions during that time span. If it wasn't for her photo, Chipotle would have disappeared from the Salmonella Jungle.