After 13 years as host of the annual Wacky Warning Labels Contest, I can testify that there are more labels than ever -- on everything you can possibly imagine, and on some things you can't.
This year's 2010 Wacky Warning Labels Contest finalists tell the tale. We'll be picking the "winners" in a nationally televised poll later this month, but the finalist list always attracts attention.
- "Never operate your speakerphone while driving," warns a label on a product called "Drive 'N' Talk."
- A motorized go-cart helpfully warns consumers that "this product moves when used."
- A bottle of swine growth supplement called "Piglet Blast" cautions, "For animal use only."
- The Bluetooth headset alerts its users that "use of a headset that covers both ears will impair your ability to hear other sounds."
- And a pair of swim goggles alerts users to the risk of pulling them away from the face, lest they "spring back and cause injury."
There's a flood of ridiculous warning labels and cautionary signs that attach themselves to nearly every item we buy and every service we engage. In the case of mechanical items, ladders, tools and now food, you can usually find multiple warnings.
What causes this warning label overload?
The fear of lawsuits, and the lawyers who promote them, as well as the culture that dictates that someone else is responsible for every mishap.
The fear is real, based on practical experience. We all know about the hot coffee lawsuit against McDonald's. But did you know that McDonald's was also sued over a milkshake? Several years ago, a man went through a drive-through at McDonald's and bought a milkshake and fries. He put the shake between his legs, the fries next to him and drove away. As he reached for the fries, he squeezed the drink between his legs and it spilled on him. Distracted, he rear-ended another car and caused minor damage. Incredibly, the owner of the damaged car sued McDonald's for failing to warn the customer about drinking a milkshake while driving.
This case went all the way to the New Jersey Supreme Court before finally being thrown out for good. But when the restaurant asked to be reimbursed for the thousands it spent on legal fees in this frivolous case, the judge refused. He actually said the plaintiff shouldn't be penalized for being "creative and imaginative." What?!
In another you-gotta-be-kidding-me lawsuit, a man sued a saw manufacturer after injuring himself with an ordinary table saw even though the saw was safe when used properly. He claimed it was defective because it didn't have new, state-of-the-art flesh-sensing technology found only on some of the most expensive saws. A jury actually awarded him $1.5 million.
When we stop laughing at the labels and the lawsuits, we realize this is a serious problem. The real impact of our lawsuit-happy culture can be felt in the quality of life for our families and communities.
A Little League official reported that liability insurance is the single largest expenditure for the entire baseball league. Girl Scouts have to sell tens of thousands of boxes of cookies just to cover liability insurance costs. Critical medical services, like the 20 maternity units that have closed in the Greater Philadelphia area due to medical liability costs, simply vanish from towns across America.
Many of the companies and service providers I interview as the senior fellow at the Foundation for Fair Civil Justice admit that the silly, extreme labels and warnings they attach to products and contracts may not even protect them from lawsuits. The fear of lawsuits in our lawsuit-happy culture, where someone else should pay for any harm, nevertheless fuels the effort.
As we unveil the 2010 Wacky Warning Label Contest winners later this month, our lawsuit-happy culture would benefit from one big warning label on our collective bathroom mirror: "Use common sense while awake."
Bob Dorigo Jones, author of the best-selling "Remove Child Before Folding: The 101 Stupidest, Silliest and Wackiest Warning Labels Ever," is the host of the annual Wacky Warning Labels Contest. Complete information is available at www.foundationforfairciviljustice.org/.
To submit an op-ed or a letter to the editor, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.