Warning! Do not read this article while showering!

By Shelley McKinney
web posted June 19, 2000

In any department store in America, an average consumer can walk in the doors, shop around, and come out with a product that could kill him. Oh, there are national retailers that sell guns, that's true. I'm not really thinking about firearms, however. I was thinking of lethal items such as furniture polish...hair dryers...bath soap.

Reading warning labels on consumer products has been a favorite pastime of mine for several years. To be sure, I have gotten some odd looks from fellow shoppers from time to time as I stand in an aisle with my cart, giggling helplessly over the advice that litigation wary -- and weary -- manufacturers have to print on their goods in order to provide themselves with some small means of protection from frivolous lawsuits. "Warning!" I read on the back of a box of wart-removal bandage strips. "Not to be taken internally!" The mental picture of a person with an unsightly wart on a finger gulping down a package of bandages was just too much for me. Could anybody really be this abysmally idiotic?

My personal opinion is no. No, nobody would ever be stupid enough to swallow a box of bandages, and nobody would ever be stupid enough to use a vacuum cleaner to suck up anything that was burning. But somewhere along the line, the company that makes the vacuum cleaner in question has encountered a simple-minded person who did indeed defy all laws of common sense in order to trundle out the sweeper with the idea that it was, perhaps, a more efficient way of putting out a fire than, say, a fire extinguisher. Chances are pretty good that the simple-minded person soon became rather rich due to a settlement made by the company in order to avoid a lengthy, costly court battle. Better to part with a few hundred thousand -- even a few million, perhaps -- than to damage the company's reputation by appearing to be uncaring about a consumer's woes.

Oh, if the McDonald's Corporation had only thought to put that warning label on the coffee cup before that elderly lady came to the drive-thru window. As you may know, the lady placed the coffee cup between her knees and drove off, only to be scalded in a rather delicate area of her body when she braked the car a little bit later. The woman sued the McDonald's Corporation for the cost of her medical bills, and I have to ask "Why?" Wouldn't any reasonable person be ashamed and embarrassed to admit that she had done something so foolish as to place a cup of coffee between her knees while driving? The whole point of frivolous lawsuits, however, is that the plaintiffs are willing to put aside the fact that they have behaved in an unconscionably stupid manner in order to get their hands on some money. The next time you order a hot beverage from McDonald's, be sure to read the warning label that now appears on the cup. "Warning! The beverage in this container is HOT and could cause burns!"

I can't bring myself to remove the label from my hair dryer that reads, "Warning! Do not use this appliance while showering or bathing!" Can you imagine having to be a part of the group that brainstormed this label? "What asinine thing could some ridiculous person do to hurt himself while using our hair dryer?" says the vice president of Consumer Affairs. "Let's think of every possibility so that we won't be held liable for someone's dumb mistake." Really, I'm surprised that the label doesn't unroll like a window shade and include gems of wisdom such as: "Warning! Do not hook this appliance up to a portable generator and use while playing basketball! Serious injury to yourself or to others could be caused by inadvertent trippage over the cord."

"There is no easy definition for the phrase 'frivolous lawsuit,'" said Paul F. Waldner in an article on that topic in the Houston Chronicle. Mr. Waldner is the past president-elect of the Houston Trial Lawyers Association. "But I imagine any claim for damages where the injuries are minimal or where the basis for the defendant's liability is hard to believe, might qualify as frivolous."

Here and there, "watchdog" groups have sprung up to stand against nonsense lawsuits. One such group is the Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse (CALA), which is based in Texas. "We are not lobbyists or lawyer bashers. We do not endorse or support candidates. We simply strive to educate the public and raise awareness about the cost and consequence of real and potential abuses in our legal system," they say. CALA's Houston chapter has a small but informative web site that offers to keep citizens aware of frivolous lawsuits that can often be an enormous waste of taxpayer money, while trial lawyers are running out of pockets in which to stuff their enormous fees.

"Warning! Avoid spraying in eyes!" my aerosol can of furniture polish urges. I reflect on this as I bring up the rich glow on the piano. Somewhere, someone must have been having just an ordinary day, doing a little bit of housework...when all of a sudden polishing the forehead must have seemed like a really clever thing to do. I have also learned that there is a warning label on a package of batteries that encourages purchasers NOT to swallow them: if they should misguidedly do so, the packages warns the consumer to seek medical assistance at once. There are better ways to re-charge your energy, such as by eating complex carbohydrates instead of the contents of your Discman.

Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch, an organization akin to CALA, holds a yearly Wacky Warning Label Contest. The winner of the third annual event in January 2000 was Bonnie Hay of Plano, Texas. She found a warning label on her iron which read "Warning! Never iron clothes while they're being worn!" (Consider the prohibitive difficulty of trying to get a really keen knife-edge crease in a pair of trousers, with your spouse's legs inserted therein.) M-LAW president Robert B. Dorigo Jones says that, while humor is the main goal, the contest does have its serious side, which is "to illustrate manufacturers' growing fear of lawsuits and the retreat of principles of individual responsibility." The winner of another year's contest claimed first prize by submitting an entry for a car sunshield, the kind that stretches out across the dashboard and is held in place by lowered sun visors: "Warning! Do not drive with sunshield in place!" Who'd-a thunk?

According to M-LAW's web site, their entire purpose -- as is the purpose of CALA and other state watchdog organizations -- is to inform the public so that "courts can eliminate the junk lawsuits while preserving every victim's right to sue." A new majority has been elected on the Michigan Supreme Court, and M-LAW can see the light at the end of the tunnel, feeling that the new judges "[have] displayed a refreshing willingness to defend common sense and overturn outrageous outcomes in lower courts...[and] fewer people will use lawsuits as a way to avoid personal responsibility, or as a way to strike it rich ion the lawsuit lottery."

This seems eminently reasonable. But just in case you don't agree, please let me warn you that you should not be reading this article while showering. Anyone who mixes a laptop computer with water is just begging for trouble.

But then, that's really the point of so many of these frivolous lawsuits, isn't it?

There were no hot cups of coffee nearby when Shelley McKinney wrote this article. McKinney, a staff writer at Ether Zone and freelance writer, can be reached at ecaillie@earthlink.net

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