Publicly traded companies disclose an array of risks to their businesses in annual reports filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Lawsuits and other legal proceedings are a big one, because they can spur huge monetary awards to plaintiffs.
Here are relevant passages from the “Risk Factors” section of the annual 10-K reports for three restaurant chain giants that are occasionally drawn into crime news stories; links are to the reports themselves.
We could be party to litigation that could adversely affect us by increasing our expenses or subjecting us to significant monetary damages and other remedies.
We are regularly involved in legal proceedings, which include consumer, employment, tort, intellectual property, breach of contract, securities, derivative and other litigation. Plaintiffs in these types of lawsuits often seek recovery of very large or indeterminate amounts, and the magnitude of the potential loss relating to such lawsuits may not be accurately estimated. Regardless of whether any claims against us are valid, or whether we are ultimately held liable, such litigation may be expensive to defend and may divert resources away from our operations and negatively impact reported earnings. With respect to insured claims, a judgment for monetary damages in excess of any insurance coverage could adversely affect our financial condition or results of operations. Any adverse publicity resulting from these allegations may also adversely affect our reputation, which in turn could adversely affect our results.
We have been and will continue to be subject to various types of investigations and litigation, including collective and class action litigation, which could subject us to significant damages or other remedies.
We are subject to the risk of investigations and litigation from various parties, including vendors, customers, franchisees, state and federal agencies, stockholders and employees. From time to time, we are involved in a number of lawsuits, claims, investigations, and proceedings consisting of intellectual property, employment, consumer, personal injury, commercial and other matters arising in the ordinary course of business. We have been subject to claims in cases containing collective and class-action allegations. Plaintiffs in these types of lawsuits often seek recovery of very large or indeterminate amounts, and the magnitude of the potential loss and defense costs relating to such lawsuits may not be accurately estimated. Litigation trends involving the relationship between franchisors and franchisees, personal injury claims, employment law and intellectual property may increase our cost of doing business. We evaluate all of the claims and proceedings involving us to assess the expected outcome, and where possible, we estimate the amount of potential losses to us. In many cases, particularly collective and class action cases, we may not be able to estimate the amount of potential losses and/or our estimates may prove to be insufficient. These assessments are made by management based on the information available at the time made and require the use of a significant amount of judgment, and actual outcomes or losses may materially differ. Regardless of whether any claims against us are valid, or whether we are ultimately held liable, such litigation may be expensive to defend and may divert resources away from our operations and negatively impact earnings. Further, we may not be able to obtain adequate insurance to protect us from these types of litigation matters or extraordinary business losses.
The food service industry is affected by litigation and publicity concerning food quality, health and other issues, which can cause guests to avoid our restaurants and result in significant liabilities or litigation costs.
Food service businesses can be adversely affected by litigation and complaints from guests, consumer groups or government authorities resulting from food quality, illness, injury or other health concerns or operating issues stemming from one restaurant or a limited number of restaurants. Adverse publicity about these allegations may negatively affect us, regardless of whether the allegations are true, by discouraging guests from eating at our restaurants. We could also incur significant liabilities if a lawsuit or claim results in a decision against us or litigation costs regardless of the result.
Given the marked increase in the use of social media platforms and similar devices in recent years, individuals have access to a broad audience of consumers and other interested persons. The availability of information on social media platforms is virtually immediate as is its impact. Many social media platforms immediately publish the content their subscribers and participants can post, often without filters or checks on the accuracy of the content posted. Information concerning our company may be posted on such platforms at any time. Information posted may be adverse to our interests or may be inaccurate, each of which may harm our business. The harm may be immediate without affording us an opportunity for redress or correction. These factors could have a material adverse effect on our business.
Complaints or litigation may hurt us.
Occasionally, our guests file complaints or lawsuits against us alleging that we are responsible for some illness or injury they suffered as a result of a visit to our restaurants, or that we have problems with food quality or operations. We are also subject to a variety of other claims arising in the ordinary course of our business, including personal injury claims, contract claims, claims from franchisees and claims alleging violations of federal and state laws regarding consumer, workplace and employment matters, wage and hour claims, discrimination and similar matters, or we could become subject to class action lawsuits related to these matters in the future. The restaurant industry has also been subject to a growing number of claims that the menus and actions of restaurant chains have led to the obesity of certain of their guests. In addition, we are subject to ” dram shop ” statutes. These statutes generally allow a person injured by an intoxicated person to recover damages from an establishment that wrongfully served alcoholic beverages to the intoxicated person. Some litigation against restaurant chains has resulted in significant judgments, including punitive damages, under dram shop statutes. Because a plaintiff may seek punitive damages, which may not be covered by insurance, this type of action could have an adverse impact on our financial condition and results of operations. Regardless of whether any claims against us are valid or whether we are liable, claims may be expensive to defend and may divert time and money away from our operations and hurt our performance. A judgment that is uninsured or significantly in excess of our insurance coverage for any claims could materially adversely affect our business, results of operations, financial condition or liquidity. Further, adverse publicity resulting from these allegations may have a material adverse effect on us and our restaurants.