Thursday, September 28, 2006

Fast Food Strip-Search Hoax

Pretending to be a police officer or corporate manager, a caller convinces a fast food manager to detain and search a particular female employee, sometimes as far as body cavity searches. This has apparently happened dozens of times in the last seven years. And the incidents have led to litigation -- most recently in a tort case that is now on appeal. Bizarre 'Strip-Search Hoax' Case Before 11th Circuit, Fulton County Daily Report (, Sept. 25, 2006.

In that case, from Hinesville, Ga., the young woman who was strip-searched and demeaned sued McDonald's and the franchisee that ran the restaurant where she worked. The district court ruled that McDonald's could not be held liable, but left alive claims against the franchisee.

The plaintiff's brief says that at least 14 incidents had taken place at different McDonald's restaurants before this one, and McDonald's acknowledges 12 of them. So what was the corporation's duty to prevent the next one? McDonald's says it warned the franchisee and its training manuals prohibited strip searches; the franchisee says it never got the warnings or the updated manual.

At least seven other incidents have led to private lawsuits. One plaintiff in Kentucky settled with the franchisee for $250,000. Some employees who conducted searches have been charged criminally. One man in Kentucky is currently being prosecuted for making the call that led to a search.

Why would employees go along with a caller's instructions? Roger W. Hall, the attorney for the Kentucky plaintiff who settled, "said the scenario 'ties right in' with psychological tests in which subjects have inflicted pain on others when told to do so by an authority figure." For an introduction to the psychology studies, see Obeying and Resisting Malevolent Orders, on the American Psychological Association's website. People in general often compliant when told to do things by authority figures. And maybe the fast-food business is particularly ripe for such a hoax, with young shift managers and even younger employees and few sources of protection from abuse (such as a union, ombudsman, trusted senior coworker, etc.).

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