Most people assume when they order coffee it’s going to be served hot. That’s why people with brains were outraged in 1994, when a jury awarded a woman $2.86 million after she burned herself on hot coffee purchased from the fast-food purveyor.
When McDonald’s added iced coffee to its menu years later, I expected to see “Warning: Iced coffee may be cold” signs duct-taped about. Then again, perhaps we need yet another buyer beware sign, this one pointing out, “Drinking caffeinated beverages may result in you not falling asleep at your desk, thereby ruining your day at school or work.”
We kid because we care. These silly warning signs are a result of a combination of nutty awards in frivolous lawsuits and so-called political correctness gone astray. Fortunately, there are people who spend their valuable time compiling lists of warning sign nonsense so people like myself don’t have to. For the last 12 years, the Foundation for Fair Civil Justice has held a Wacky Warning Label Contest as a way to bring attention to unjust lawsuit awards. The 2009 winner is a submission from Steve Shiflett of Hampton, Ga., according to the foundation’s Web site. The label is attached to a portable toilet seat for outdoorsmen called “The Off-Road Commode” because it is designed to attach to a vehicle’s trailer hitch. The warning label reads: “Not for use on moving vehicles.”
As my Mom might say, and probably has, anyone who needs that label just might be too stupid to live. Other winners, with my insightful observations, include:
• A wart removal product instruction guide that warns, “Do not use if you cannot see clearly to read the information in the information booklet.” Also don’t use if you can’t see the wart in question.
• A label on the underside of a cereal bowl warns, “Always use this product with adult supervision.” You don’t even want to know how much supervision is needed to fry bacon.
• A small, 1-by-4-inch LCD panel warns, “Do not eat the LCD panel.” I wonder if a 1×4 piece of cake comes with the clarification, “The cake cannot be watched as a LCD panel.”
• A bag of livestock castration rings warns, “For animal use only.” Good God, I hope so.
Bob Dorigo Jones, who developed the contest, said behind these silly labels is a serious public policy concern. The contest reveals how lawsuits, and even just the fear of one, have driven companies to spend millions of dollars on otherwise common-sense warnings.
“According to the Pacific Research Institute,” Jones said, “$589 billion would be saved per year for investment in new jobs and consumer spending if U.S. tort-cost levels were comparable in relative size with other industrialized countries. This amount equals an annual ‘litigation tax’ for a family of four of more than $9,000.”
As a result, manufacturers of consumer products just about have to warn people about their warning labels these days lest they get sued. Then again, there are some labels that defy any sort of rational explanation. Here’s a sampling from various Web sites for your viewing pleasure:
• “Do not use while sleeping.” On a hair dryer. Talk about multi-tasking.
• “Recycled flush water unsafe for drinking.” On a toilet at a public sports facility in Ann Arbor, Mich. This actually would make sense at a dog park.
• “Shin pads cannot protect any part of the body they do not cover.” On a pair of shin guards made for bicyclists.
• “Do not drive with sunshield in place.” On a cardboard sunshield that keeps the sun off the dashboard. Apparently some things are not self explanatory.
Some signs are accidentally funny even when there is a serious message. On my last visit to the University of North Alabama, I ran across two bright blue poles with “Emergency” painted on the side. The phone on the pole was covered with another sign: “Out of order.”
David Brown is publisher of the Cherokee Scout. You can reach him by phone, 837-5122; fax, 837-5832; or e-mail, [email protected]. You also can follow us at twitter.com/Scoutpublisher.