For the past 15 years, the Center for America has held a nationwide contest to see who could find the most outrageous, hilarious warning label in America. We have done this for two reasons. First, it's just plain fun to see how many labels there are around the home and office that warn us to exercise common sense -- such as the warning on a fishing lure that says, "Harmful if swallowed." (I didn't even know fish could read.)
Second, it has become an eye-opening way to learn about the burden on product makers in the most lawsuit-happy society on Earth. For today in America, warning labels must protect not only consumers from genuine danger but also producers from frivolous lawsuits from those who ignore common sense and get hurt while using their products.
With personal injury lawyers lurking around the corner and advertising on every daytime television show, manufacturers are constantly looking over their shoulders in anticipation of the next lawsuit. There is a lawsuit filed every two seconds in America. Manufacturers know they are just a trip, poke or spill away from being sued at any moment. This is why we see warning labels like these three finalists in our 15th annual Wacky Warning Label Contest that were announced this week:
- A label on an electric razor for men warns: "Never use while sleeping."
- A neck pillow developed and marketed specifically for children warns: "Keep product away from infants and children."
- An electric skillet warns: "Caution: griddle surface may be hot during and after cooking."
These aren't urban legends -- they're real. For years, we've been talking about these labels on radio shows, and people often say these warnings are so crazy that they don't know whether to laugh or cry. However, over the past year, we've been hearing something new. Now, more and more people are not just laughing or becoming exasperated -- they're becoming so alarmed by warning labels that they're not using the products they bought.
One woman told me her mother bought several heating pads and later returned all of them to the store because each one warned: "Caution, Risk of fire." She was genuinely concerned that her house might burn down because the heating pads would ignite a fire. Silly? Perhaps, but it happens more often than you might think. We also hear more serious stories from people who haven't used medicine prescribed by their doctor because of alarming warnings on the packaging.
In too many costly instances, consumers are making the choice to avoid potential risk despite the fact that these products make life better and safer.
There is something terribly wrong with that, and it can be traced directly to the climate of fear that our courts have fostered by refusing time and time again to dismiss frivolous lawsuits. There are now so many costly lawsuits in the United States that one respected think tank has calculated that Americans would save $589 billion every year if our tort costs were simply comparable to those of other industrialized countries.
There is certainly a place for legitimate product liability lawsuits. But we also need judges and policymakers to give personal responsibility and common sense a place in our courts again.
Imagine if all the money we're now spending on excessive litigation were spent on job creation or innovation instead. It would give our economy a tremendous shot in the arm at a time when it is desperately needed. And of course, we might not need warning labels like the one on a scooter that says, "This product moves when used."
That's pretty funny, but we'll trade laughs for jobs any day.
Bob Dorigo Jones is senior fellow at the Center for America and author of the best-selling "Remove Child Before Folding: The 101 Stupidest, Silliest and Wackiest Warning Labels Ever."