'Probably not terribly realistic': Woman sues Chipotle for $2.2 billion over photograph

A Sacramento woman is suing Chipotle Mexican Grill for allegedly using her image and posting it in several restaurants without her permission.

Leah Caldwell’s lawsuit, filed on Dec. 27 in U.S. District Court, alleges that Chipotle Photoshopped her image and added bottles of alcohol in the photograph.

The distortion, according to Caldwell’s lawsuit, puts “a false light upon her character.”

Caldwell, who is representing herself, is seeking $2.2 billion in profits from the use of her unauthorized image. A photographer and chief executive officer were also named in the complaint.

She did not immediately return a request for comment.

Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold said the restaurant chain does not discuss details surrounding any pending legal action. But he added, “The filing of a lawsuit is purely allegation and is proof of absolutely nothing.”

According to Caldwell, her photograph was taken in the summer or early fall of 2006 when she was sitting inside a Chipotle restaurant near the University of Denver. A man approached and asked her to sign a photo release waiver that would have allowed him to use some photographs he had taken, Caldwell said.

Caldwell said she refused to sign the release.

She said she was engaged “in the personal activity of eating in a nearly empty restaurant” and had a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” She accused the photographer of invading her privacy.

According to Caldwell, no cameras were visible. No announcements were made of a photo shoot and no alcohol bottles were placed near her.

Nearly six years later, Caldwell said, she saw a photo of herself in a Chipotle restaurant in Florida. The photograph, according to the complaint, was hanging on a wall inside the Orlando eatery on Dec. 21, 2014.

A year later, she said, she saw the photograph on the walls of two Chipotle franchises in Roseville, Calif., and Sacramento.

“At each location, the plaintiff recognized the iconic picture, her distinct photographic image and likeness even with apparent editing,” Caldwell said in the suit.

In California, the statute of limitation in publicity-rights cases is two years, so she might not be able to pursue this case because she first noticed the image in 2014, said attorney Douglas Mirell, who represents high-profile celebrities in image-use cases.

She would also need to show that a percentage of Chipotle’s earnings were directly attributed to her image.

Her quest to get $2.2 billion in damages will be difficult to prove and “probably not terribly realistic,” Mirell said.

veronica.rocha@latimes.com

For breaking news in California, follow @VeronicaRochaLA on Twitter.

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UPDATES:

2:40 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from attorney Douglas Mirell.

This article was originally published at 1:20 p.m.

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