Warning-Label Clutter — Where Will It End?

Remember when John “Sue the Bastards” Banzhaf announced that he would sue restaurants if they didn’t post warning labels about the supposedly addictive nature of their foods? Or when the Center for Science in the Public Interest asked for warning labels on any food that contained the chemical acrylamide (including, we presume, acrylamide-heavy spinach, beets, jam, and breakfast cereal)? We’ve been spared such inanities — so far. However, as a group called Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch (MLAW) points out: “lawsuits, and fear of lawsuits, have prompted many manufacturers to issue warnings against even obvious misuses of consumer products.” MLAW has announced the winners of their “Wacky Warning Label Contest” — and the results remind us why ambulance chasers are increasingly viewed with disdain.

The wackiest label from this year’s list — found on a bottle of drain cleaner — reads: “If you do not understand, or cannot read, all directions, cautions and warnings, do not use this product.” Presumably, illiterate amateur plumbers will know that they can’t read the warning, but won’t know what to do about it. Other winners include:

A 12-inch-high storage rack for compact discs which warns: “Do not use as a ladder.”

A five-inch fishing lure which sports three steel hooks and cautions users that it is “harmful if swallowed.”
A smoke detector which warns: “Do not use the Silence Feature in emergency situations. It will not extinguish a fire.”

How have we come to this? The Warning Label Book explains: “Some idiot used the product improperly and ended up in the emergency room. That same idiot knew an ambulance-chasing attorney who figured they could sue the manufacturer for some major loot.” Here are a few more examples of real-life crazy warnings from The Warning Label Book:

A Batman Halloween costume with the warning “cape does not enable wearer to fly.”

A package of Silly Putty warning “Not for use as earplug.”
A TV label that reads: “Do not pour liquids into your television set.”
A butane lighter with the helpful hint that “Flame may cause fire.”
An advisory notice in public restrooms: “Do not eat the urinal cakes.”
A hair dryer with the label “Never use while sleeping.”
A car windshield cover with the warning “Never drive with the cover on your windshield.”

Appearing on ABC News in July, John Banzhaf defended the idea of requiring signs that warn restaurant customers they might get fat by eating too much. His argument? “People every year fall off stepladders and get injured … if there isn’t a very clear and conspicuous warning, the stepladder people are liable for their fair share.” To that unfortunate truth, ABC’s John Stossel rightly responded:

There are 40 warnings on a stepladder, but I don’t think that makes us safer. In fact, ladders are a good example of how lawyers like Banzhaf have made warning labels meaningless. There are so many labels on so many things that we don’t read labels we should read. Like the warning label on microwave popcorn that tells you could burn yourself when you open the bag. Or the label on some antibiotics that says it won’t work if you take it with milk. We ought to read those, but when there’s so much information, who reads any of it?

It’s no surprise that the respected author of The Death of Common Sense, Philip K. Howard, became involved in legal reform. Banzhaf and his band of obesity trial lawyers simply ignore sensible objections like Stossel’s. They also assume that Americans lack common sense. When Stossel asked Banzhaf whether a restaurant is at fault “if I go in there and have three milkshakes,” Banzhaf responded that yes, the food provider is to blame, if it fails to warn customers about the dangers of eating there.

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