November 2017
Text by Marita Tjarks-Sobhani. Translated by Translations4IT

Dr. Marita Tjarks-Sobhani is professor for technical editing at the University of Applied Languages in Munich, Germany. She also runs the Bachelor study program "International Media and Technical Communication". Since 2007, she has been co-shareholder of Textagentur Hennig&Tjarks GbR.


mts.textagentur[at]hennig-tjarks.de
www.hennig-tjarks.de


 


 

This article was originally published in German in tekom's trade journal 'technische kommunikation'.

Humor to change American liability law

Everyone has seen or heard of the apparently exaggerated warning labels and legal disputes in the US. The most absurd ones are ripe for for special competitions. However, they appear to be funny only at first glance.

American liability law is accepted as the legal basis in companies maintaining commercial relationships with the USA. However, it is often not understood. There is resistance even in the USA itself, for example with awards for absurd liability cases and crazy warning labels. "The American judicial system is just different", commented the German Süddeutsche Zeitung on 30th June 2016, pertaining to the emission scandal of Volkswagen und the information that owners of affected vehicles would receive an amount of compensation in the USA. In Germany, the automobile manufacturer simply offered a correction. However, 2.3 million German car owners must certainly have wished for American law to apply here too.

Different countries – different law

In the USA, different liability regulations apply for instructions warning against dangers while using a product, as compared to Germany.

The story about animals in the microwave doggedly persists for illustrating the absurdity of warning labels on American products, which says that a manufacturer apparently warned against drying a live animal in the microwave. The authenticity of the warning has often been called into question already. Probably rightfully so, since the warning has not been found among the Top Five of a competition that curates the most absurd warning labels since 1997, nor was a source found for it during research carried out systematically in the field of technical language research [1]. In the meanwhile, the story can be found on an internet site that specializes in exposing modern day legends and lists the respective versions of a case there [2]. It states that the warning is not just against drying animals but small children as well.

Resistance in their own country

The numerous absurd warning labels face incomprehension and unease not just internationally, but in the USA itself. In 1997, concerned citizens therefore founded the organization "Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch", "M-Law" in short. They wanted to show that the "lawsuit lottery" of justice pains them and normal common sense should return.

The organization emphasizes the right of victims to take recourse to legal support. However, it opposes so-called junk lawsuits. The supporters of M-Law consider such lawsuits as a mockery of any sense of responsibility and a fair judicial system. M-Law describes itself as non-partisan and grounded and considers its task to be that of observing the judicial system as a watch dog in the interest of the public. One objective is to reduce the negative impact of the misuse of lawsuits on American citizens. Everyone supporting the goals of M-Law is desired as a member. The organization became known through Bob Dorigo Jones, its current president. He established a competition of the most absurd warning labels, when the organization started in 1997 and it was well received by the public.

The competition has now moved to a partner organization of M-Law, "Center for America" – CFA established in 2004. The event continues to be led by Dorigo Jones, who is also a Senior Fellow at CFA along with being president of M-Law. The CFA is also a non-partisan organization taking care of various grievances in the USA, with a media presence stronger than that of M-Law.

CFA also offers a comprehensive portfolio. It serves to counteract the misuse of the judicial system and over-regulation. The organization is not limited to this competition alone. For example, it also offers interactive learning programs for companies for protection against the misuse of law. At present, there are five free online tutorials that are however exclusively related to Human Resources. They are helpful for companies that want to employ resources in the USA. More tutorials are planned, and suggestions for their content are requested.

Award for warning labels

Anyone can send a warning that appears absurd to the Center for America, along with suitable supporting documents. The warning labels are first checked for authenticity. This check is becoming increasingly important, since many false notifications started flowing in. The notifications concern not just warning labels but also judicially processed liability cases: Along with the animal in the microwave that has already been mentioned, there is also the apparent case of a motor home driver: The driver activated the cruise control of his vehicle, left his driving seat, made coffee and caused an accident – as was expected. The driver successfully sued the manufacturer of the motor home. He had not been clearly warned that the cruise control did not function like an autopilot! However, this case has since been seen as a modern legend, including a version with a lady driver.

The CFA makes a pre-selection after the check and determines the Top Five from the submitted entries. The public can then vote on them subsequently. The voting mode is flexible, so that there is voting through the internet, on live shows on the radio and also on live TV shows. Submitters of award winning warning labels are looking at prize money of 250 to 1000 dollars. The number of submitted examples lies constantly at about 300 submissions per year. The images 1 to 3 show the 2016 finalists – with the kind permission of Bob Dorigo Jones.

Image 1–3: 2016 finalists of the CFA award
Source: Bob Dorigo Jones

 

Start of the competition

The idea for the "Wacky Warning Labels Contest" came from Dorigo Jones. Two cases gave him impetus to start an annual competition for the craziest warning labels.

Case 1 – Basketball net: An American sued a small company manufacturing basketball nets for 50,000 dollars.  He successfully made the company responsible for his teeth getting caught in the net as he went to sink the ball in it. To highlight the absurdity of the judgement Dorigo Jones suggested the following label for basketball nets for the future: "Not to be used as dental floss!"

Case 2 – Originality: A hungry driver bought food and beverages at McDrive. He placed the chocolate milkshake between his legs, and his burger and fries on the passenger seat and continued driving. As he bent over to reach his burger and fries, he accidentally pressed his legs together, so that the milkshake spilled over the legs of his pants and into his lap. Distracted by this, he drove into the vehicle before him.

The driver of the vehicle he ran into had no sympathy for the other vehicle owner and sued him and McDonald’s. The attorney of the complainant argued that the fast food chain neglected instructing customers about the dangers of eating and driving at the same time. Although the case was not won and McDonald’s did not have to pay compensation, the petition of McDonald’s to make the prosecuting attorney pay about 10,000 dollars for attorney fees was rejected. The judge in this subsequent lawsuit took the point that the attorney suing the restaurant had acted creatively and ingeniously and may not therefore be punished.

Dorigo Jones quoted the course of this lawsuit as an example that showed there are no scruples in the USA anymore with respect to suing someone, because judges do not impose any penalties for odd suits. The manufacturing companies know the situation. Even if they win the lawsuit, there are major financial losses, because the judicial costs are high. They see the only way out is to warn against all possible and impossible dangers.

The goal of the competition

The award-winning warning labels doubtlessly serve as merriment, but that is not the declared intention of competition. Primarily, Dorigo Jones wants to draw the attention of Americans to the absurdity of their judicial system, illustrate the financial damages and see to changes. He assumes that the present possibly excessive legal disputes lead to

  • many good products and services being kept from consumers, if there is even the smallest imaginable risk related to them and
  • products becoming expensive; Dorigo Jones supposes a hidden surcharge for legal costs on numerous products and services. A manufacturer or service provider would like to be prepared for financially excessive legal disputes.
  • In an interview on the news he estimated that the lawsuits cost American tax payers about 590 billion dollars a year.

Absurd or logical

It is possible to trace how some of the award-winning warning labels have come into being. Thus, the warning label on a fishing hook for predator fish stating "Harmful if swallowed" has less to do with the apprehension that the fisherman could swallow his own hook. Rather, the warning concerns a law in California according to which every product containing lead must have a warning concerning the harmfulness to health if swallowed.

On the other hand, warnings alerting against intended use are precisely to the contrary and entirely inexplicable. For example:

  • Scooters for children: "This product moves when used"
  • Bolsters for children: "Keep product away from infants and children"
  • Protective helmet for football players: "… To avoid these risks, do not engage in the sport of football."

The award-winning warning labels also include those for imported products of German companies, such as for a dishwasher: "Do not allow children to play in the dishwasher", the T-Shirt of a sports items manufacturer "Keep away from fire" or for a callus remover "For external use only". The companies therefore adapt to the American judicial system as a precaution.

To sum up

The competition was conducted for the 20th time in 2017.  Along with the usual procedures, an event with "Best of" was planned as well. The favorite warning labels from the last 20 years are to be consolidated for this event. But what was achieved in this period? Did anything change – and if yes to what extent? [3]

For the consumer, Dorigo Jones surmises that the competition has sensitized them to the legal practice that does not lead just to funny warning labels. It also gives rise to disadvantages and financial damages for the consumers. The objectives envisioned by the competition were therefore achieved. At the same time, he also observes that an understanding has developed for the warning practices of the manufacturers.

He sees no changes for the past 20 years looking at the legal practice: "nothing has changed". This necessarily leads to the fact that nothing significant could change even for manufacturers. Thus, the manufacturers have not reduced the number of warning labels or stopped warning against intended use. Contrarily, Dorigo Jones even surmises that some manufacturers support him in protesting against the judicial system by maintaining the attention of consumers through extra funny warning labels and thus wanting to refer to the absurd legal practice.

 

Selection of warning labels 1997-2015

  • Foldable children’s stroller: Remove child before folding
  • Tractor: Avoid Death
  • Toilet seat for installation on an off-roading vehicle: Not for use on moving vehicles
  • Sun shield that covers the entire front screen of the vehicle: Do not drive with sunshield in place
  • Hair dryer: Never use hair dryer while sleeping
  • Toner cartridge: Do not eat toner
  • Iron: Never iron clothes while they are being worn
  • Toilet bowl: Recycled flush water, unsafe for drinking
  • Kitchen knife: Never try to catch a falling knife
  • Shoe carton with slippers: Do not eat
  • DVD Player: Do not swing from the product or pull it
  • Dog food consisting of ox penis: Not for human consumption
  • Paper serviette with a water landscape: Caution: Not to be used for navigation

Inf. 01: A selection of warning labels
Source: Marita Tjarks-Sobhan

And so it continues

The competition continues to be popular in the USA, as indicated by many signs. Dorigo Jones mentions the unabating number of submitted examples and the continued active interest of the media. What is more convincing is that something like a cult warning label is emerging: A collection of dumb warning labels appeared in 2007 under the heading "Remove Child Before Folding" [4]. The title referred to a "Baby Stroller", a stroller that can be folded.

Nine years later, such a baby stroller can be seen in the Walt Disney sequel of Finding Nemo – "Finding Dorie" – including the warning label. A coincidence? Definitely not, because the warning label was "lovingly" customized in terms of language in the film. Since an octopus and the heroine of the film, Dorie (in glass container) sit in the stroller in the animated film, the warning label can be read there correspondingly as: “Remove Occupant Before Folding”. An end to the Wacky Warning Labels Contest is therefore hardly in sight – and thus America, according to Dorigo Jones, continues to be “the most lawsuit-happy society on earth”.

Awards for crazy lawsuits

Laws are the basis for legally conformant action. But their interpretation by the courts is also important. Platforms dealing with product liability lawsuits can certainly be important. And there are awards for these as well: the Stella Award and the True Stella Award [5]. These are names of prizes for outrageous and absurd court cases.

The Stella Award – it is no more possible to know who coined the name. It can however be traced back to being named after Stella Liebeck. In 1992, the lady who was then 79, spilt a cup of McDonald’s coffee in her lap. Stella Liebeck suffered burns and subsequently sued the fast food chain. A court in New Mexico granted her 2.9 million dollars as compensation.

After the case became known, numerous emails about absurd court cases and abnormally high compensation amounts flooded the Internet. This topic piqued the interest of journalist Randy Cassingham, but he found fairly quickly that something was always incorrect in the reports and most were even unauthentic. His research into the case of Stella Liebeck also found that the reports were superficial and incomplete. In reality, the sum was first reduced to 2.7 million dollars in initial negotiations, which corresponds to the two-day sales turnover of coffee at McDonald’s, and then reduced to 640,000 dollars. There was a compromise in the end, but the final sum was not published.

What was also missed: The 79-year-old was not driving herself. She also did not spill the hot coffee in her lap during the drive, the vehicle was at standstill. Moreover, she suffered such bad burns that she had to be treated for over two years, including skin transplants. It was also not known that McDonald’s had refused to pay about 20,000 dollars of medical expenses [6].

Due to the importance of this topic, Randy Cassingham decided to make such cases accessible to the public, but only after thorough research. He created the True Stella Award to highlight this objective and to separate himself from fake cases.

The True Stella Award: From 2002 to 2007 Cassingham had reported on several absurd court cases [7], chosen a winner and awarded it the Stella Award. He also listed his sources to illustrate the seriousness, so that the readers themselves could check the authenticity.

The internet site of the awards show that no further awards are planned at this time. The reasons for this decision have not been mentioned explicitly, but can be accessed from other sources and are due to the form of such an exercise: Court proceedings can draw on for inordinately long times, because

  • they often include appeal proceedings
  • many cases are intentionally prolonged with the objective that one of the parties will no longer have money to continue with the proceedings.

Therefore, in order to report on a case completely and correctly, it would probably be necessary to engage intensively over years with such a case. Cassingham calculated the average duration of proceedings about which he reported to be two to three years. And sometimes, it is not possible at all to report correctly about a proceeding and the related liability amounts in spite of all efforts. If compromises are carried out after proceedings are concluded, as was the case with Stella Liebeck, the public usually does not come to know any specific details, and absolutely nothing about the actual amount of compensation.

Even Cassingham had to recall an award that had already been given, in spite of all his efforts and careful work methodology. But he has not completely withdrawn from this topic. He operates an internet site under the motto "This is true", through which he offers a weekly newsletter with odd stories that are true according to him [9]. There are four cases every week, which can be obtained free of cost by those interested. Ten cases can be accessed against a fee.

Journalist Cassingham no longer restricts himself to the USA, but researches globally; the topics too have a wider scope, for instance:

  • A man sued his doctor, because he lived longer with his cancer than predicted by the doctor.
  • Two intruders were in the middle of their criminal activity as one of them changed his mind and caught the other.

Blogs on jurisprudence

A blog on jurisprudence claiming to be the oldest blog on this subject was started in July 1999 by Walter Olson [10]. Olson has authored numerous books on the American judicial system and is a Senior Fellow of the Cato Institute. Since 2013 he also shares responsibility for the website.

Reports about the American judicial system can be found on this site. According to the authors, judicial proceedings are used too often as weapons against the guilty and the innocent. This impedes individual responsibility in the final analysis.  The system promotes wrong behavior, makes those involved rich at the expense of citizens and defies even the most modest attempts at reform.

At the end of the year, visitors can find a compilation of the most absurd legal disputes on the page of Walter Olson [11]. The list is not determined through a competition, but is decided by the "U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform" and compiled by Walter Olson. The following cases are reported for example:

  • A woman received a compensation of 161,000 dollars; she had injured herself as she bumped against a ladder of a hydraulic work platform. The woman had not seen the ladder, because she was writing text messages on her mobile telephone at that time.
  • A party to a complaint received 30,000 dollars as compensation for a printer. The printer cost 40 dollars for purchase on the advertising site Craigslist, but was defective.

The internet platform "Abnormal Use" deals with the unusual use of products [12]. The blog contains discussions on product liability cases and proceedings. The platform has been in existence since January 2010 and has reported on over 1792 cases till now and put them up for discussion – 21 cases per month on an average. The number is reducing however, with no explanation being identified. 2011 was the most "successful" year with respect to quantity with a total of 276 reports. The least number of cases were reported in 2016 – 192 cases. There were just 17 reports in the first three months of 2017. Nevertheless, the platform enables good orientation, since the blog role is organized by content categories. These include "Food safety" or "Product liability cases with numerous affected".

The benefits for interested parties

One should just simply enjoy the Wacky Warning Labels Contest. A new edition follows once a year, usually in June. Judicial proceedings are an indication of how laws are interpreted and thus valuable help for estimating legal risks, especially when it concerns the legal position of other countries, with which one is not familiar. However, the sources should be checked very closely, because fake news is prevalent, and not just since January 2017.

 

Sources

Enhanced reprint; first published in ‘texte für technik 10’ 2016

Links and Literature for the article

[1]    Reinart, Sylvia (2009): Kulturspezifik in der Fachsprachenübersetzung. Forum für Fachsprachenforschung, Band 88. Berlin.

[2]    www.snopes.com

[3]    Tjarks-Sobhani, Marita (3. März 2017): Written Interview mit Bob Dorigo Jones about the account and other procedures of the competition.

[4]    Dorigo Jones, Bob (2007): Remove Child Before Folding: The 101 Stupidest, Silliest, and Wackiest Warning Labels Ever. New York.

[5]    www.stellaawards.com

[6]    Cassingham, Randy (2005): The True Stella Awards. Honoring Real Cases of Greedy Opportunists, Frivolous Lawsuits, and the Law Run Amok. New York.

[7]    www.stellaawards.com

[8]    Cassingham, Randy (2005): The True Stella Awards. Honoring Real Cases of Greedy Opportunists, Frivolous Lawsuits, and the Law Run Amok. New York.

[9]    www.thisistrue.com

[10] www.overlawyered.com

[11] www.overlawyered.com/2015/12

[12] www.abnormaluse.com

 

Links for additional reading