Warning labels marked on or attached to everyday products have given all of us pause at one time or another. But apart from the inherent irony of receiving no-brainer advice-as in "Don't use blow dryer while bathing"-is the lingering question of whether a deeper meaning lurks behind such imperatives.
Groups like Detroit-based M-Law, a self-described "public watchdog over our court system," claim to know the underlying cause for fear that guides manufacturers to provide such condescending instructions: frivolous lawsuits-so-called because, the groups contend, the suits are filed in a spirit of greed or the desire for publicity rather than a spirit of justice.
M-Law President Bob Dorigo Jones identified public awareness of frivolous lawsuits as the motivation for the group's annual release list of top "Wacky Warning Labels."
"Lawsuits [are] a very serious issue, but when you start talking about all the specifics of litigation, people's eyes start to glaze over," Jones said. "You have to find a creative way to cut through all the clutter."
This year, the group's No. 1 label, selected from approximately 100 finalists, was a warning discovered on a bottle of drain cleaner: "If you do not understand, or cannot read, all directions, cautions and warnings, do not use this product."
Other selections: A sled that warned, "Beware: sled may develop high speed under certain snow conditions." A caution against using a 12-inch-high CD storage rack "as a ladder." A 5-inch fishing lure, with three gnarly-looking steel hooks, deemed "Harmful if swallowed." A smoke detector that reads, "Do not use the Silence Feature in emergency situations. It will not extinguish a fire."
Jones asserted that in America's intensely litigious climate, most warning labels result from either a previous lawsuit or a company's knowledge that it could "be sued at any time over any given reason." However, Jones acknowledged he couldn't point to specific lawsuits that had produced any of this year's winning labels.
When reminded that the issue of tort reform legislation is a dogfight traditionally associated with insurers on one side (for) and trial lawyers on the other (against), Jones said his organization does frequently engage in debates with trial lawyers who "obviously do not like what we're doing."
Jones said frequent "mudslinging" leads to accusations that groups like M-Law are "a shill for insurance companies or tobacco."
In fact, a report released by the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in 2000 alleged that certain ""lawsuit abuse' groups throughout the country are part of a national, corporate-backed network of front groups that receive substantial financial and strategic assistance from the tobacco industry and some of America's biggest corporations."
Jones said his organization has adopted a position of taking no money from tobacco or tobacco-related groups, and has limited itself to taking less than 10 percent of its budget from insurance companies or insurance-related interests.
Jones added that while M-Law is not a lobbying group, legislation reform "has to be a vital part of any solution."
He also pointed to a national legal reform group called The Common Good (chaired by Philip K. Howard, author of The Death of Common Sense) as an example of a "broad base" of nationwide support for a reduction in lawsuits. Jones said Howard's organization has included such diverse board-of-directors members as George McGovern and Newt Gingrich.
Locally, the nonprofit San Diego County Chapter of Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse (CALA) has also courted media attention through the medium of reality-based legal humor-most recently through a "Lawsuit Recall Election" launched in October 2003.
Andy Kotner, president of San Diego County CALA, described a list of seven court cases, culled from national news reports, which all six CALA groups in California named as their top outrageous-lawsuit picks.
These included a class-action filed against McDonald's Corp. by three New York teenagers who alleged they had gained up to 200 pounds from eating fast food; a suit against both the Kellogg Co. and Black & Decker Corp. stemming from allegations by a New Jersey couple that a cherry Pop-Tart they were toasting allegedly exploded and caused a fire that destroyed their home; an action filed against a fence manufacturer on behalf of a dog for psychological damage to the tune of $25,000 after the dog ran through its owner's invisible fence; and a negligence suit brought against U.S. Airways by a man who, after having been left asleep on an aircraft by a flight crew, woke up in the dark, thought the plane had crashed and believed he was dead.
Kotner said insurers and business owners too often settle cases instead of fighting them because it's cheaper and blamed California's litigation system for creating a hothouse environment for "frivolous lawsuits and outrageous judgments."
In summation, "Personal responsibility is out," Kotner said. "Making a quick buck is in."