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Aug 31 2011

Samosas and the soul

samosa.jpegSamosas 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.

8 comments

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  1. 1
    henry

    What if the customers were not religious? What if they were strict vegans due to a moral philosophy which they structure their entire life according to?

    If they sued for damages due to mental anguish do you think they should win?

    I personally know of one female who takes a very strict approach to what she eats. In short, she will not eat anything unless she knows exactly what was used to prepare the food.

    This issue came up over a conversation at a pot luck. One friend dropped off a dish and then left for another engagement. My friend, who follows the strict diet, then arrived and asked what was in the dish. We answered that is was a soup but none of us knew the exact ingredients. She passed.

    I had never considered being so fully aware of what one puts in their body. This incident made quite the impression on me. As someone who strives to be a vegan I try to not eat meat. But I also don’t want to offend a host or be too much trouble at some event. Previously, I would have never even mentioned not eating meat. I would have simply chose a non-animal dish if available.

    Back to the case, to be sure claiming ‘spiritual damages’ is a bit far fetched. But what if we take the spiritual out?

  2. 2
    P Smith

    I echo what Herny said, they should have left out the religious blathering. That’s not to suggest that they deserved to lose the case because of it, but when you’re a minority religion or less powerful one facing an intolerant and/or unthinking religion, you’re not likely to receive understanding of your views. An objective argument – that they ordered vegetarian food and the supplier knowingly disrespected their preference – would have stood a better chance.

    Remember the kefuffle about food in Iraq a few years ago? Idiots in the US military gave meals containing pork to the Iraqis they were training as police. The Iraqis, rebelled and the US military acted surprised, and some rightwingnuts called them “ungrateful”.

    Voluntary diet restrictions by individuals are silly whether religious or otherwise, but they should be respected as long as the person is only trying to apply it to themselves. If they are demanding or forcing others to participate, then they deserve derision and mockery.

    (I don’t see any difference between religious diets, vegetarianism, a child’s dislike for a specific vegetable, or my own repulsion toward eating octopus or squid. It’s a choice, and quite often it’s for silly reasons. It’s nowhere near comparable to food intolerances like lactose, gluten or in my case, a soy allergy.)

    A religious diet is no different than a religion itself – if religion is kept in homes and churches, they’ll never meet any resistance. Atheists are only critical of religion when it is imposed on the unwilling 90(by force, laws, or courts) or people are victimized by religion (e.g. Nazism, priests molesting children).

  3. 3
    Deb

    There is a fine line, often, between following a ‘strict diet’ and gluttony. While in modern times, gluttony is often seen as over-indulging; historically, the concept of gluttony also included those who insist on eating “only 6″ – 10″ rainbow trout that has been caught in the wilds of Colorado on a Tuesday when the moon is full.”

  4. 4
    Scott

    I think they should win the case if, and only if, the can PROVE that spiritual harm was inflicted. Since that is impossible to prove, they shouldn’t win their case.

    Serving pork to the Iraqis is a different issue. My brother in law is from Egypt, but is a Christian, so he has no restriction against eating pork, but never having been able to eat it until coming to the US, it took him a long time before he was even able to keep it from going right through him, if you know what I mean. So, apart from their dietary restrictions, it may have been that the Iraqis also weren’t able to digest it properly.

  5. 5
    Mano

    Even if one removes the religious factor, there is still a high hurdle to overcome in showing that you suffered “serious emotional injury” as a result of eating food that was safe and edible, just because your personal preferences did not include it.

  6. 6
    SRA

    When I saw the title of this post, I thought you would be commenting on the somali samosa ban:
    http://www.indianexpress.com/news/somalias-islamist-group-bans-samosas-calling-it-too-western/823140/

  7. 7
    Mano

    SRA,

    Actually, I did in the next post!

  8. 8
    Heidi Nemeth

    Being strictly vegetarian is part of the Hindu culture. Not eating insects is part of the American culture. More than one American plaintiff has received damages due to the nationally well understood distress of seeing or eating a cockroach in his food. (Cockroaches are “safe, edible, and fit for human consumption” as well as very nutritious, being high in protein.) Hindi, as a culture, not just a religion, have every right to be as revolted by meat as we are by cockroaches. And they have just as much right to be compensated for their revulsion, even if we don’t share their revulsion.

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