Law Review: The baller and the birthday cake
As a general rule of thumb, a birthday party shouldn’t result in litigation. This is particularly true when the party is for a child. But the pressure to host the “perfect party” can do strange things to the mind of a parent. The California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, in Woodhall Ventures, LLC v. Yang, recently issued a colorful decision “about a birthday cake” – the court’s words, not mine – where the perfect party was not to be and strangeness ensued.
When “self-proclaimed celebrity jeweler” Ben “the Baller” Yang and his wife decided to throw a “modern Mad Science” birthday party for their seven-year-old son, an elaborate birthday cake was, of course, a must. The Yangs hired Big Sugar Bakeshop to create a confectionary masterpiece similar to one depicted in a photograph the Yangs provided to Big Sugar. The cake in the photograph had a beaker spilling over the top, a play on the periodic table and pill-like jellybeans along the bottom. The cake Big Sugar delivered on the birthday boy’s big day looked largely the same, but the jellybeans were replaced with icing made to look like pills. And this is where the trouble began.
Immediately upon receiving the cake Mr. Yang called the bakeshop and expressed his great displeasure with the inclusion of life-like pills made of icing. His point is generally well-taken given the age of the party attendees, but Big Sugar had twice provided the Yangs with an invoice that separately called out “pills.” Despite Big Sugar rushing to make a second cake, Mr. Yang took to social media and unleashed various expletive laced rants directly calling out Big Sugar and later continued the tirade on his podcast. A faceless mob of Mr. Yang’s social media followers then began threatening Big Sugar with death, violence and boycott. Understandably concerned, Big Sugar requested that Mr. Yang correct and retract his statements; when he failed to do so, Big Sugar filed suit for libel, slander and other causes of action.
CONFECTIONARY COMMENTARY NOT A PUBLIC INTEREST
Mr. Yang attempted to have the lawsuit thrown out by utilizing a procedural mechanism aimed at protecting First Amendment rights and prohibiting strategic lawsuits against public participation. Mr. Yang claimed the statements he made against Big Sugar were protected free speech because they were made in public and related to a public interest. Mr. Yang cited the following as public interest: (1) candy confusion (where children mistakenly eat pills they believe are candy); (2) a celebrity’s day-to-day life; (3) a nationally recognized bakery with poor customer service that designed a cake posing risk to children.
The court of appeal soundly rejected all of Mr. Yang’s arguments. On the candy confusion issue, the court acknowledged that candy confusion may be of public interest, but that Mr. Yang’s statements did not constitute a “public discussion of anything…[t]hey aimed to whip up a crowd for vengeful retribution.” Regarding Mr. Yang’s supposed celebrity status, the court held “[e]ven people of great renown are capable of banalities,” and “shouting makes the volume loud…[i]t does not make the content worthy.” And to the argument the statements served as consumer protection information, the court held, “Yang’s quest for revenge did not give consumers information beyond his complaints about his one cake order.”
A SENSIBLE RULING
In ruling against Mr. Yang, the court of appeal held Big Sugar’s lawsuit can proceed on its merits to a jury trial, settlement, or some other dispositive outcome. Comfort should be taken in the court’s ruling that a celebrity’s caustic commentary on a birthday cake is not of public interest deserving the highest legal protections. In homage to regular column contributor Jim Porter’s flair for the cringeworthy: Next time Mr. Yang may want to skip the cake and order humble pie.
Ravn R. Whitington is a partner at Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada. Ravn is a member of the firm’s Trial Practice Group where he focuses on all aspects of civil litigation. He has a diverse background in trial practice ranging from complex business disputes to personal injury to construction law, and all matters in between. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.portersimon.com
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