Hold the Fries: Did Burger Joint Get Raw Deal on Moby Dick Nuisance?

Steptoe & Johnson has prevailed against a burger restaurant, Rogue States, after the law firm complained that the fumes from the restaurant made them all smell like short-order cooks. Indeed, one of the firm’s “rainmakers” even reportedly threatened to resign from the firm if the burger smells were not removed from his office. D.C. Superior Court judge John Mott ruled that Rogue States was indeed responsible for a nuisance and must either abate the odors or close down.

The ruling came after a three-day hearing over the burger fumes. However, was Rogue States the true source of the fumes or was it another Washington conspiracy where the true culprit skillfully implicated an innocent party? (Think of No Way Out meets The Good Burger meets Anatomy of a Murder) The Washington Post reports that witnesses questioned the source of the smell — pointing fingers at Moby Dick’s House of Kabob and noting that complaints continued after a new air-cleaning equipment had been installed at the burger joint. Rogue States relied on a smellologist (OK I made up the title) as an expert. Nelson Dilg installed a “Smog-Hog exhaust system” at the restaurant, but testified that “a blind man” could see the fumes were coming from a vent that connected to the House of Kabob. Moreover, the restaurant was in a “building canyon” which trapped fumes from various sources.

Mott clearly rejected the causation challenge and Steptoe general counsel Thomas Barba clearly relished the result: “Steptoe is gratified by the court’s order. From the time that the restaurant started operations in February of this year, we have sought a solution that would allow the restaurant to continue its operations without harming our employees. Unfortunately, the restaurant and its landlord were unable to agree on a solution that would safeguard the well-being of our employees. Accordingly the court had no option but to order the nuisance abated and the restaurant to turn off its grill. While we wish the defendants could find a way to survive in this location and not cause a nuisance to our employees, we are committed to the health and safety of our workforce and providing our employees with a good environment to work in.” In other words, hold the fries, fellas.

Some Steptoe employees complained of headaches and dizziness. The cost of moving the ventilation system, however, to the roof of the building would cost over $150,000. That is a lot of burgers.

The question is why the defense firm, Roetzel & Andress, did not counter sue with a claim that Steptoe made its restaurant smell like ink stained paper, sweating associates, and piles of billing records.

Source: American Law Daily

Jonathan Turley

23 thoughts on “Hold the Fries: Did Burger Joint Get Raw Deal on Moby Dick Nuisance?”

  1. PatricP,

    You may recall that a couple of weeks ago, a woman made headlines by pulling out her ancient McDonald’s burger relic and placing it next to a fresh one for a Kodak moment. They looked exactly the same. Scary.

    I saw a story over on Consumerist where someone actually did a control and made a homemade burger — the homemade burger didn’t grow mold either. There’s too little moisture on the surface of hamburgers to do so.

  2. Addiction Analyst –

    That could very well be a 40-year-old, Bob’s Big Boy burger from your hometown. Hold the relish.

    You may recall that a couple of weeks ago, a woman made headlines by pulling out her ancient McDonald’s burger relic and placing it next to a fresh one for a Kodak moment. They looked exactly the same. Scary.

    Regarding the cost/benefit comparison of a judge vs a jury, it reminds me of what one our professors stated back in school:

    “If you’re representing a guilty client, always seat the dumbest possible jury. If you’re representing an innocent client, go for the smartest folks you can find.”

    Which, come to think of it, would have made a terrific epitaph for the late Johnny Cochran, Esq.

  3. @Tony C.: In any situation where it might make sense to waive your right to a trial by jury (and go with a judge instead), I would first attempt to reach a deal with the other side (either the prosecution in a criminal matter, or the opposing party in a civil matter). Short of a deal however, I would NEVER waive my right to a trial by jury, in either a civil or criminal matter. IMO, the situations where you cannot make a deal with the other side and can make out better with a judge than a jury are so exceedingly rare (if they exist at all), that you are probably fooling yourself if you think your situation is an exception.

    That does not however address the point I raised above: when one of the two parties is an attorney or a law firm and the other is not, the non-attorney should have a right to a trial by jury on all matters in order to remove the inherent bias many judges have that favor lawyers over non-lawyers.

  4. Mom,
    Living in Minnesota limits the operation of street food vendors, your garlic noodle bowl can quickly become a hockey rink in January!

    If Mr. Boone’s meat is anything like his music it will be bpale, tasteless imitations of actual meat; a boiled rice gruel in steak form.

  5. Some Steptoe employees complained of headaches and dizziness

    Who knew the smell of cooking hamburgers could be hazardous to ones health?

  6. I am more interested in where that picture of a hamburger was from… It looked like the original Big Boys of my home town that I haven’t had in 40 years and I would love to have one now and not even cared how I might smell afterwards.

  7. @Alan: I’m not a lawyer but I have sued people and had people prosecuted. I’ve never been a defendant, but if I were then in that case if I were guilty I’d choose a judge, if I were innocent I’d choose a jury. It is just my opinion, but I think a judge is more likely to let you off on a technicality; a jury is more likely to ignore technicalities and see the truth and do what is right. There would be a risk either way, of course, but I think that would be my choice.

  8. I like the “food trailer” movement that is going on. There are hundreds of them in Austin and other places.

  9. @Buddha: Yes, yes I have noticed. And not very good sandwich shops either, in my opinion. And call me old-fashioned, but I have some psychological quirk that makes me leery of buying a sandwich made “fresh” in a venue designed to sell toxic substances like gasoline and other mechanical lubricants.

  10. Tony C.,

    I’m not disagreeing with that statement, but “shall we be reduced to a nation of sandwich shops?”

    Have you noticed how many gas stations and convenience stores now have a Subway or other sandwich shop in them?

    We are pretty close to to a nation of sandwich shops already.

  11. I have actually been involved recently on behalf of a restaurant-owning friend in negotiating the exit point of a vent to get it up to code. I sincerely doubt the $150K cost of moving the path to the roof.

    I’d also point out that if the restaurant is up to code on venting and filtering and in an appropriately zoned space, I don’t think this is a fair ruling at all and I would appeal or countersue. Businesses need some level of a priori assurance that if what they are doing with a space is legal and approved, their investment of a quarter million or a million isn’t going to be washed away by people claiming they don’t like the smell. Vegetarians don’t like the smell of grilled meat or BBQ, I don’t like the smell of fish, shall we be reduced to a nation of sandwich shops?

  12. I wonder to what extent the judge’s finding was influenced by the fact that the plaintiff was a law firm. In my experience, when one party is a lawyer or law firm and other party is not, the judge will often bend over backwards to make rulings favorable to the lawyer or law firm. In order to avoid this potential taint, in my opinion actions of this type (where one party is a lawyer or law firm and the other is not) should always be tried by a jury not a judge.

  13. I would gladly accept the smell of burgers and fries instead of a paper mill.

    About 8 years ago we attended my cousin’s wedding in Tennessee. It was on Pickwick Lake. We had rented the condo for a week.

    I think they had multiple paper mills in the area. Each one must have been used to “compliment” the stench created by the others. When I say it was bad, I really mean it. I mean, they could sell dirty baby diapers as air fresheners. 🙂

  14. I’m against state sponsored torture but I’m starting to think it’s A-OK if used on lawyers.

  15. Although it holds little weight in a courtroom, it would occur to me that there is nothing at all wrong with appealing to the good old sand-box-on-the-playground “fairness” rule:

    Who was there first?

    This country is famous for valuating “environmental impact” studies prior to the development of all kinds of businesses. Why should a hamburger joint be any different?

    Much as I hate to say it, if the the law firm was there first, I’d rule in favor of the esquires.

  16. This is covered under the nuisance doctrine. Hopefully under the attractive nuisance.

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