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Woman Sues Chipotle for $2.2 Billion Over Unauthorized Use of Her Image

Does a company have the right to use someone’s image without their permission? That question is central to a new lawsuit. While the lawsuit’s merit remains undetermined, it is stirring up negative publicity for the company. Entrepreneurs who are starting an ad campaign may want to consult with an experienced business attorney to avoid finding themselves in a similar situation.

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Plaintiff Leah Caldwell filed her lawsuit against Chipotle Mexican Grill. The complaint names Steve Ells, the company’s founder and CEO, as a defendant as well as a photographer named Steve Adams.

Caldwell alleges in her complaint that her photograph was taken without her knowledge while she ate in a Chipotle restaurant in Denver during the summer of 2006. She recalls that the restaurant was virtually empty, and she also states that she did not see any cameras or notices of a photo shoot being underway. Nevertheless, as she left the restaurant, she alleges that Adams approached her and asked if she would sign a release for the use of her image. Caldwell refused.

Caldwell was in Orlando in December 2014 when she visited another Chipotle location, only to see her image displayed. In her complaint, she says that the image was digitally altered, most notably by including bottles of alcohol in her vicinity. A few months later, she visited two other Chipotle locations in California, only to see her picture yet again.

She responded by filing the lawsuit, claiming that Chipotle did not have the right to use her image in their marketing campaign. Caldwell is representing herself in the case, and she has asked for a settlement of more than two billion dollars, the amount which she says the restaurant chain earned as a result of the use of her unauthorized photo.

Chipotle has not commented publicly on the suit, and much investigation will be required to determine whether or not Caldwell’s rights were violated and if so, how much money she may be entitled to. Speaking with a qualified business attorney is the best way to avoid legal pitfalls when it comes to using or designing marketing materials.