When I started the Wacky Warning Labels™ Contest 17 years ago, I wanted to showcase the lengths to which companies feel they must go to avoid the lawsuit-happy culture that is unique to America. Fast-forward to this year’s Contest, and the “winners” are crazier than ever. As the Contest creator and Senior Fellow for Center for America, which sponsors the Contest, I point out that each year, new and ever-costlier symptoms of the plague of abusive lawsuits on our economy and way of life find their way to the public’s eye. This year, we noticed a new trend in labels and, by extension, lawsuits and lawsuit prevention by foreign companies doing business in the U.S.
In the past, warning labels like the one on a fishing lure that advised: “Harmful if swallowed,” and the baby stroller that cautioned: “Remove child before folding” dominated the contest. However, those warnings almost sound logical compared to the winner of our 2014 contest.
This year, the wackiest warning label in America as selected by the audience of a national television show was found on a cell phone battery booster. It warns: “Get rid of children.”
The audience selected that label over several others in our contest including a sheet of peel and stick decals that warns: “Decals are for decoration only and will not protect you from bodily harm or injury,” and a warning on a printer ink toner cartridge that says: “Do not drink.”
We find these silly warning labels on products sold throughout America because, in this era of excessive litigation, labels must do more than protect consumers from possible injuries, they have to protect product makers from frivolous lawsuits. In recent years, more and more judges have been willing to overlook personal responsibility in injury lawsuits and force job providers to defend themselves against lawsuits by people who ignored common sense and sued anyway.
Like the guy who used a wood router to perform dental work on himself. When he didn’t like the results, he sued the manufacturer. That lawsuit led to a warning that says: “This product not intended for use as a dental drill.” Really.
These types of obvious warning labels aren’t found on products in other countries around the world. I have done scores of interviews with reporters throughout Europe and Asia who can’t believe the warning labels regularly found on American products. However, now that manufacturers in their countries are learning more about the lawsuit problem in the United States, they are trying to keep one step ahead and join the warning game, too. That’s why we see a warning on the battery booster telling us to get rid of children.
That warning makes no sense and is an obvious mistranslation. Yet it reveals a growing trend among foreign manufacturers who are acknowledging the legal risks of selling products in America and trying to protect themselves from lawsuits, too. Heaven forbid if someone follows that label literally! The other problem with foreign label is that the real warning is lost in translation, and consumers miss the point of the warning.
Does it make sense that a guy who caught his teeth in a basketball net while dunking the ball could sue the net maker and force them into a $50,000 legal settlement? It doesn’t make sense to me, but it happened. Does it make sense that a restaurant could be sued for not warning its customers about the so-called dangers of driving with a milkshake between their legs? That’s crazy to most people, but again, it happened. These lawsuits not only cost a lot of money, they send a message to other manufacturers that if they don’t warn their customers about things that are common sense, they could be sued, too.
While there is certainly a place for legitimate lawsuits, no other country in the world has the litigation problem we have in America or spends so much on dealing with these lawsuits. The last major study that compared America’s tort system with other countries revealed that the amount of the Gross Domestic Product that goes to tort costs here is 2.2 percent. That’s twice what it is in Germany (1.1 percent) and nearly three times what it is in Japan (.8 percent). The United Kingdom and France spend even less on tort costs than Japan.
If U.S. tort costs were comparable in size with other industrialized countries, we could save $589 billion per year for investment in new jobs and consumer spending. It’s time for another warning for consumers: “Lawsuits are costing you plenty!”