The obligatory "Harvard prof goes to war with Chinese restaurant over four bucks" post

The Internet’s blowing up over this. Let’s talk about it — but not until you’ve read the e-mail exchange between the two, which feels like it came from a McSweeney’s satire on privilege. The professor, Ben Edelman, ordered 53 bucks’ worth of food from a local Chinese restaurant; the prices listed on the restaurant’s website for some of the dishes turned out to be outdated, resulting in a bill for $57. Edelman e-mailed them asking for a refund.


And that’s when things went so very wrong, my friends. Just a taste:


It gets better from there. In case the rooting interests here aren’t palpably clear, the Boston Globe provides an extra sympathy nudge:

[Edelman] graduated summa cum laude from Harvard College. He has a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University, and a law degree from Harvard Law School.

Ran Duan moved to the U.S. from China when he was 3-years-old. His father had hoped to support the family with a career as an opera singer, but when that didn’t pan out, Duan says “like all Chinese families we decided to open up a restaurant.”…

The exchange with Edelman stood out to Duan. “I have worked so hard to make my family proud and to elevate our business. It just broke my heart.”

And that’s how Ben Edelman became The Most Hated Man In The World. But wait: Is he right? Lay aside the fact that the PR beating he’s taking for being so high-handed with Duan is costing him much more than the 12 dollars he asked for in treble damages. Is he, as Sonny Bunch and Ann Althouse argue, basically correct in treating this as a not-insignificant offense? Edelman defended himself to Business Insider, claiming that if it’s not right for large companies to get away with false advertising, it shouldn’t be right for small businesses to get away with it. By his own admission, Duan knew that the prices on the website were wrong and hadn’t moved quickly to correct them; presumably the restaurant was making a few extra ill-gotten bucks on every order with little resistance from customers, most of whom wouldn’t fight Duan over an extra three dollars when they’re hungry. Assume 50 Internet orders a day and an average overcharge of two dollars per order and you’re talking about three grand a month squeezed from customers who thought they were agreeing to one price and were then surprised at the point of delivery with another.


Is Edelman right on the law, though? Adam Levitin, who teaches the Massachusetts consumer protection statute that Edelman threw in Duan’s face, says nope:

First, MGL 93a(9)(3) does not mandate treble damages.  It provides for a recovery of the greater of actual damages or $25.  The statute allows double to treble damages if the UDAP was a willful or knowing violation” or if the defendant refused, in bad faith to settle. That’s quite different from automatic treble damages.  

But wait, you say, that just means the HBS professor should have been demanding $25, not $12. Not quite.  There’s a second problem.  MGL 93a(9)(3) requires that before bringing suit the plaintiff send a demand letter to the business asking for rectification of the unfair or deceptive act or practice. That gives the business a chance to settle things for something like actual damages. The whole purpose of the demand provision is to encourage settlement and to act as a control on damages.

Duan told him in the course of his e-mail exchange that he’d honor the website prices and refund him the overcharge, i.e. four dollars. That should have been the end of it as a legal matter. At one point, Edelman even offered to accept four dollars or 12 dollars, whatever Duan wanted to provide. Read the exchange, though, and you’ll see that as Duan started to push back a bit, citing legal advice that the restaurant owed Edelman nothing because the prices quoted on the website were for a different location, the professor dug in and increased his demand to have 50 percent of his order refunded instead. Actual quote:



It was the principle of the thing! Or, maybe Duan stepped a little too hard on Edelman’s ego by resisting his demand for a refund. Or maybe Mediaite’s right and the guy’s just a dickweed.

Exit question: What happened here? There’s a certain segment of the HA faithful that reliably takes a “rules are rules” approach to disputes, no matter what outcome the balance of equities suggests, but I’ve gotta say, the comments in Headlines to the Globe item fall pretty consistently on the “dickweed” side of the ledger.

Update: Edelman has now apologized. He does seem sincere.

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