Samosas are a triangular shaped Indian pastry that can have any filling but usually consists of a spicy mixture of potatoes, peas, and other vegetables. Quite improbably, they became the focus of a recent legal case in New Jersey.
As part of an India Day celebration in 2009, the plaintiffs placed an order at the Indo-Pak restaurant for vegetarian samosas, informing the restaurant that the food was being purchased for a group of strict vegetarians. The restaurant filled the order and assured the plaintiffs that the food did not contain meat. After consuming some of the samosas, the plaintiffs returned the remaining samosas to the restaurant and were advised that the food was, in fact, filled with meat. As a result, the plaintiffs claimed spiritual damage and asserted a number of causes of action against the restaurant, including product liability and breach of express warranty.
A lower court judge ruled against the vegetarians on all counts but an appellate court reversed part of that decision, saying that the restaurant had in fact violated a warranty. But they rejected the claim that the diners, by unwittingly eating meat, had experienced “negligent infliction of emotional distress” and “become involved in the sinful cycle of pain, injury and death on God’s creatures, and that it affects the karma and dharma, or purity of the soul. Hindu scriptures teach that the souls of those who eat meat can never go to God after death, which is the ultimate goal for Hindus. The Hindu religion does not excuse accidental consumption of meat products. One who commits the religious violation of eating meat, knowingly or unknowingly, is required to participate in a religious ceremony at a site located along the Ganges River in Haridwar, Uttranchal, India, to purify himself. The damages sought by plaintiffs included compensation for the emotional distress they suffered, as well as economic damages they would incur by virtue of having to participate in the required religious cleansing ceremony in India.”
The court ruled that they did “not find any evidence of an ascertainable loss on plaintiffs’ part”. The court said that while they may have not got what they asked for, the product itself was “safe, edible, and fit for human consumption.”
This case raises some interesting points. One is how a restaurant that caters to an Indian clientele could make such a mistake, since vegetarian samosas are the norm. The answer to that was that on that same day there had been another order specifically for meat samosas and the two orders had got switched.
The more interesting one is whether one should be eligible for damages because of the harm that one believes one has done to one’s soul. I have some sympathy for the diners because I know plenty of people who have strong religious proscriptions against certain foods and would be very upset if a similar thing had happened to them. But the court’s ruling made some good arguments as to why the spiritual damage claim was unwarranted.
In the present matter, plaintiffs have not pled or provided evidence of any “loss of moneys or property.” Indeed, it would be difficult for them to do so, since unrefuted evidence demonstrates that, following recognition by the restaurant of its mistake, Moghul Express furnished an order of conforming samosas to plaintiffs without cost.
Plaintiffs claim that they have sufficiently plead ascertainable loss by seeking damages in the amount of the cost of a trip to India to undergo a purification ritual. However, what they are seeking is the cost of cure for an alleged spiritual injury that cannot be categorized as either a loss of moneys or property.
Here, an underlying loss of the value of property cannot be demonstrated.
The court said that violations of religious dietary laws did not rise to the standard needed to meet the claim of serious emotional injury, which requires that there must be “an especial likelihood of genuine and serious mental distress, arising from special circumstances, which serves as a guarantee that the claim is not spurious.”
How far should we go to accommodate people’s religious beliefs? Should we take seriously the claims of religious people that their immortal souls have received damage and that as a result they will not go to heaven?
I don’t think so. After all, there is no evidence to suggest that there is such a thing as an immortal soul let alone a heaven for it to go to or any consensus on what standards should be met to gain entry.
I am not denying the fact that the people who strongly believe in these kinds of dietary proscriptions may feel a deep sense of anguish at having broken them even inadvertently. But it seems to me that their beef (if you’ll pardon the expression) is with god. The ultimate issue here is whether it is fair for god to punish them for such an infraction. If such people wish, they should plead their case in the heavenly courts or set up religious courts where they can argue their case before theologians and priests, and not use the secular ones which, rightly, have little use for evidence-free claims.