• One of the most high-profile lawsuits in the legal career of Doug Emhoff — the husband of Democratic vice president hopeful Kamala Harris — is a decade-long battle over the Taco Bell chihuahua. 
  • Two men sued Taco Bell in 1998, claiming that they created the chihuahua mascot and were not compensated by the chain. 
  • Taco Bell attempted to shift liability onto advertising agency TBWA. Emhoff represented TBWA when it pushed back against the fast-food chain in court. 
  • Ultimately, an appeals court ruled in 2009 that Taco Bell needed to pay the R700 millionon in damages.  
  • Taco Bell and Emhoff did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 
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Long before Kamala Harris's husband, Doug Emhoff, started making headlines as a potential future second gentleman, one of the attorney's first brushes with fame was centered on one of the most popular chihuahua's in American history. 

Emhoff was one of the lawyers representing Taco Bell's former advertising agency in a chihuahua-centric legal battle that dragged on for over a decade, starting in the late '90s.

The battle began when Joseph Shields and Thomas Rinks sued Taco Bell in 1998, saying that the fast-food chain used the "Psycho Chihuahua" character they had developed without compensation. According to Shields and Rinks, they developed the idea for "Psycho Chihuahua" with Taco Bell starting in 2016. 

Taco Bell hired a new advertising agency — TBWA — that created its own campaign centered on a chihuahua in 1998. The campaign made the dog starring in the ads and the "Yo Quiero Taco Bell" motto famous in the late '90s. 

"It appeared at the New York premiere of Godzilla, made a cameo in Shaquille O'Neal's music video, and graced the cover of TV Guide magazine," The Wall Street Journal reported of the chihuahua in 1999. "The chain's 6,000 restaurants have sold thousands of miniature plush-dog toys that bark 'Yo Quiero Taco Bell.'"

However, the Journal reports, the campaign failed to actually boost sales at Taco Bell. The chihuahua stopped appearing in ads in 2000, and Taco Bell dropped TBWA as its ad agency the same year. But, the legal damage was already done. 

In 2003, Taco Bell was ordered to pay Shields and Rinks R521 million in damages, plus an extra R200 million in interest. Taco Bell then filed a lawsuit against TBWA, alleging that the agency should be held responsible for the legal ramifications of the chihuahua campaign. Emhoff entered the legal battle as an attorney at the firm Venable, representing TBWA in front of the circuit court, Law.com reported. In 2009, TBWA triumphed over Taco Bell in a federal appeals court ruling that the chain was solely liable for paying Shields and Rinks the $42 million.

Emhoff left Venable in 2017 to become a partner at DLA Piper. The Hollywood Reporter highlighted the Taco Bell case in a profile of Emhoff in 2019. 

"Emhoff's legal career has put him on the path toward potentially becoming the first gentleman of the U.S.," The Hollywood Reporter profile reads. "In 2013, PR consultant Chrisette Hudlin set up the divorced dad of two on a blind date with her friend Harris, then California's attorney general. "

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