What happens if you sue a restaurant over $4?

One takeaway from the firestorm over a Harvard professor’s claim that a Chinese restaurant overcharged him by $4: Don’t mess with the Massachusetts consumer.

The Commonwealth has some of the nation’s toughest consumer protection laws, and in some cases merchants can be forced to pay back three times what they overcharged. They can also face state lawsuits and civil penalties in the thousands of dollars.

Associate business professor Benjamin Edelman raised the specter of that Draconian enforcement as he grilled a manager at Sichuan Garden in Brookline about why the prices reflected on an online menu didn’t match up with what he paid.


He wanted $12 to compensate him for the $4 difference.

But experts in consumer protection said that even with the muscular state protections for buyers, Edelman would have had a hard time making this case. He would have had to go to court, for one thing, then prove that Sichuan Garden overcharged him on purpose.

Kathleen C. Engel, a research professor of law at Suffolk University, said Edelman’s case would have also been weakened by the fact that the restaurant offered to compensate him for the price difference.

Courts take such offers into consideration when making decisions about whether to penalize sellers in consumer protection cases. And some say that detail would likely mean Edelman had no case for triple (some say “treble”) damages.

Engel said that even without such an offer, Edelman would have had to prove that “the defendant had that menu posted on the web knowing that they were violating the law.”

Four dollars doesn’t seem like much, but small overcharges can make a big difference if they’re repeated many times. Sometimes, the state will take up a case.

Barbara Anthony, undersecretary of the state Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation, said the attorney general’s office might get involved if it becomes obvious that there’s a pattern of abuse by a company.


Individual cases usually only rise to state action if they’re extremely egregious, or if they involve the abuse of seniors or children.

Christopher Loh, a spokesman for Attorney General Martha Coakley, said the Sichuan Garden incident isn’t the type of case his office takes up.

“Our office enforces cases of deceptive advertising such as our actions against some auto retailers, though the vast majority of individual disputes are resolved through mediation,” he said in a statement. “This is not a case that would be enforced by our office.”

Coakley’s office hasn’t gotten any complaints against the restaurant in the past five years.

Nonetheless, Edgar Dworsky, founder of the website Consumer World, said he believes Edelman’s heart was in the right place.

“My sense is that Prof. Edelman has been [subject] to undue ridicule in how the story has been reported, and in comments posted by the public,” Dworsky wrote in an e-mail. “There is an old consumer saying: It is easier to steal a dollar from a million people than a million dollars from one person.”

Engel, of Suffolk University, said she would have preferred to see Edelman’s consumer protection expertise brought to bear on a larger topic — predatory mortgage lending, for instance.

Still, she said his choice to come out swinging in his letter to the restaurant isn’t such an unusual negotiating technique.


“Given that the potential plaintiff doesn’t know what the [merchant] knew, there’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘ “I want to pursue treble damages.’ ”

Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andyrosen.