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Chipotle Cautionary Tale | Sued For $2.2 Billion For Using Photo Without Model Release

By Holly Roa on January 7th 2017

As if Chipotle hadn’t been in enough hot water lately, they are now facing a lawsuit for over $2,000,000,000 for allegedly using a photograph without a subject’s consent to advertise their business. The photo in question was reportedly sold to Chipotle by photographer Steve Adams. Mysteriously absent from the internet as of this writing, this photo included a woman, Leah Caldwell, who says she was photographed without her consent while eating at a Chipotle restaurant in 2006 and was asked to sign a release but refused. She later saw the photograph displayed as advertisement with alcoholic beverages Photoshopped into the scene in multiple United States locations.

The dollar amount she feels she’s owed by Chipotle’s CEO Steve Ellis and the photographer, Steve Adams–the defendants listed in the lawsuit–is ALL of Chipotle’s publicly stated profit from 2006 through 2015 with plans to add 2016’s profits to the total when they become available. It seems like a little bit much, since it’s doubtful her image is the sole reason they were able to do business and profit for nine years, but her moxie is at least admirable.


If these allegations prove to be true, I’d say Chipotle owes the lady some money, and photographer Steve Adams has got some explaining to do. Do they owe her all of their profit since 2006? Maybe not so much….

There are some takeaways here for photographers: if you intend to use an image commercially, you need a release. If your subject straight up refuses to sign one, it’s probably safe to assume that if you go ahead and sell that image to a major corporation, nothing good will come of it. This situation is unlikely to bode well for Steve Adams’ career, as his actions having landed a multibillion dollar lawsuit on his client, however absurd the amount may be, is not likely to endear him to anyone.

Editor’s Note: It’s always a good idea to keep some spare copies of model releases with your gear, even if they are crumpled and a mess – a signature is still a signature. Since in all likelihood you’ve got a smart phone, might I suggest getting one of the release apps, as the bring a high level of convenience and you’ll always have it on you. Furthermore they’re dead easy to use, and the more robust apps like ‘Easy Release’ let you send copies to various parties; provides a PDF version with JPEG; approved by the likes of Getty Images, Shutterstock, Alamy and more, and even can include a photo of the model right on the release. A few good ones to check out are:

Easy Release

Shake App


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Seattle based photographer with a side of videography, specializing in work involving animals, but basically a Jill of all trades.
Instagram: @HJRphotos

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Peter Moeller

    I stopped reading when it said she claims all of the profits from 2006 to 2015. What a greedy gold-digger. Why should she be allowed to waste the courts time? Are there no laws against what she is doing?

    Moral of the story, get signed releases before selling a photo.

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  2. Peter Stout

    Judges also use monetary values as punishment as well, not just to recoup losses.

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  3. Kris Orlowski

    You can get an easy-to-use App, like Shake but LegalShield for model releases. Granted that wouldn’t have been around in 2006, but for today’s photographer there is no excuse to not have one.

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  4. Lee Hawkins

    I believe US law would place no liability on the photographer unless he misrepresented that he had a model release. If he did, then WOW what a mistake on his part! If he didn’t, WOW, what was Chipotle thinking?!?

    As to what she could recover in damages, it could definitely be more than what it would have cost to hire her as a model. If she has anything against the consumption of alcohol, the photoshopped alcoholic beverages could be considered damaging to her reputation, and cost quite a bit more than a simple payment for modeling.

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  5. Diamantis Totief

    Being a (Greek) lawyer for the last 22 years I say that, according to greek laws in order to win the case and get any money, she would have to prove the link between this particular photo and the profit of the company due to this photo and still she could just get the amount someone would be paid as a model to do this job. And I think it makes sense. If a multi million dollar company hires a renowned photographer to take a photo for its new ad campaign all the profit made from that point on is due to the model? That’s completely insane! On the other hand, if she sues Chipotle for $2.2bn what is her claim from the photographer? It couldn’t be but a part of his fee. All this sounds like a lot of crap for a non US lawyer. But what do I know about US laws?

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  6. Jake Summers

    1% of Two Billion dollars is still 20 million dollars I doubt she gets that much.

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  7. Pye Jirsa

    These lawyers always put insane numbers on these cases. I am sure this is going to settle out of court for 1-2% of the asking amount. Kinda insane. While this is a bit irresponsible of Chipotle, things like this can actually happen relatively easy in a big company simply due to poor communication.

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  8. Ralph Hightower

    2.2 billion is a ridiculous amount of money to ask in a lawsuit. 2.2 million, okay, I’m okay with that.
    She didn’t get food poisoning from eating contaminated food at Chipotle . I think that she’s looking for a sugar daddy.
    Just take the 2.2 hundred thousand as a settlement; of which the lawyer will probably get 70-80%.

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