The other day, my husband needed to replace his wheelbarrow’s flat tire. The procedure was simple, but it managed to inspire a household uproar when he noticed the warning posted on the tire, both old and new: "Not for Highway Use."
First, we laughed. Then we muttered, “Who would ever think to take a 13-inch tire on the highway?” Next we wondered, “What would prompt a company to post such a ridiculous warning in the first place?”
That led to the inevitable discussion about our litigious society, which many argue has led to seemingly nutty warning labels on products.
My Favorite Warning Label
My personal favorite was the warning I found in the owner’s manual for my 2003 Volkswagen New Beetle referring to the bud vase near the steering wheel, one of the car’s hyped features. The manual says: "The vase should always be empty whenever you drive the car. In case of sudden braking, any water or object could spill out. This can cause you to have a accident." Seriously. (You won’t find the vase in the current Beetle, now that VW is aiming to make the car more male-friendly.)
(MORE: The Maddening Tiny Print on Products)
To find out what’s behind warnings like the one on my husband’s wheelbarrow and my old New Beetle, I rang up Robert Dorigo Jones, of Novi, Mich., who has run the annual Wacky Warning Labels Contest for the past 15 years. The latest winners were just announced on Fox Business News. (More on them, shortly.)
Jones, a senior fellow at Center for America — the nonprofit dedicated to reduce lawsuit abuse and government regulations, as well as the contest’s sponsor — says silly warnings “are getting worse, getting longer and getting more absurd.”
He sees the warnings as a byproduct of America’s “lawsuit-happy culture.” Among his all-time favorites is one that appeared on a collapsible stroller: "Remove Child Before Folding."
In the United States, Jones says, a product liability lawsuit without merit can cost a company thousands (or millions) of dollars to defend, even if a judge ultimately throws it out. The United Kingdom, by contrast, has a loser-pays system; a plaintiff who loses the suit must pay the defendant’s legal costs.
The oversaturation of warning labels has created two problems, Jones says.
“First, there are so many labels and multiple warnings on the same products, like ladders, that people are ignoring the warning labels altogether,” he says. “They’re missing the important warnings because their eyes glaze over.”
(MORE: Wrap Rage: Easy-to-Open Packages Are Coming)
Jones says labels are also preventing some consumers from using perfectly good products out of fear. “I heard of an elderly woman who returned all the heating pads that a daughter purchased for her because the labels warned of a potential fire hazard,” he says.
What Consumer Activists Say
But Jones’s campaign against warning labels rankles consumer activists, like Ira Rheingold, executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates, a Washington, D.C.-based group of (mostly) attorneys who represent consumers.
“This is all part of a very concerted effort by business to demonize lawyers and consumer rights. It infuriates me,” Rheingold says. “Sure, there are court cases that shouldn’t be brought, but our court system dismisses most of those. And yes, there is a certain level of silliness in some of these warnings, and sometimes we need to apply common sense. But most labels are important.”
Rheingold sighs, adding: “I wish I had the resources to run a contest for the most confusing consumer contracts from businesses, with terms and conditions no normal human being could understand.”
Point taken. But I think that some labels do seem to go a little far — including these winners of the 15th Annual Wacky Warning Labels Contest, chosen June 14 by a live studio audience on Fox Business News’ Stossel:
A warning on a laptop desk designed to fit over a car’s steering wheel while the driver is parked: "Never use this product while driving."
A label on an electric skillet: "Caution: Griddle surface may be hot during and after cooking."
A warning on a neck pillow produced and marketed for children: "Keep product away from infants and children."
A label on an electric razor for men: "Never use while sleeping."
Grand Prize Winner
A warning on a 7-inch decorative globe: "These globes should not be referred to for navigation."
Jones says the globe’s words are “a perfect example of how fear and the threat of a lawsuit drives most of these warning labels.”
That’s also his explanation for my husband’s wheelbarrow warning label, which, as it turns out, was a Wacky Warning Label Contest winner several years ago.
Do you have a favorite warning label or an example of an aggravating consumer contract? Please share it, along with your thoughts on the wording, by writing to me at [email protected] or by posting a comment below.