♬ “It’s the Most Warningful Time of the Year” ♪

Christmas Tree warningIn 1963, one of America’s favorite crooners, Andy Williams, released a Christmas song entitled “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” that would become one of the standards of the holiday season. Little did he know that by the end of the century, the holiday season would also become the most “warningful” time of the year, too.

How so? Most of the gifts Americans will give to each other during the holidays are plastered with warning labels. In fact, there are often so many warnings that they can’t all fit on the product, so something as simple to use as a fountain pen may come with an “instruction manual” filled with warnings. And many of those labels warn us about things that are such common sense they’re downright wacky.

One of my favorites is a label found on the most popular child’s scooter sold in America. If you look closely, right on the handle bar between the grips it says, “Caution, this product moves when used.” Isn’t that the whole point of a scooter?

There is also a snow sled that warns, “Beware: sled may develop high speed under certain snow conditions.” Now, if you give your child a sled that doesn’t develop high speed when it’s used, you know it probably won’t be used much longer.

And then there is the label that was found on a live Christmas tree. It warned: “Not intended for human consumption!” What?! We can all understand the need for a warning like that on some fruitcakes, but on a live Christmas tree?

Consumer products are now loaded with warnings because product makers know that if they don’t provide them, even if the warning is about something that is common sense, they can be sued by someone who may be injured while using their product. Everyone knows that a scooter will move when a child uses it, but in America, companies are being sued even when their product wasn’t defective.

Virtually all lawsuits filed nowadays over injuries involving a consumer product have a common denominator: they claim the manufacturer “failed to warn” the consumer about a potential danger. So, even if the danger is obvious, the warning is now provided.

What many people don’t know is that these common sense, obvious warnings aren’t nearly as common in other parts of the world. As the host of the annual Wacky Warning Label Contest, I have done scores of radio and TV interviews with reporters in Europe and Asia over the years, and the most common question I get is, “Why don’t we see warning labels like this in our country?”

The answer is that the United States is the most lawsuit-happy society on earth, and these common sense warnings are put on our products to avoid lawsuits. The number of tort lawsuits in America dwarfs the number of tort lawsuits filed in any other country in the world when taken as a percentage of the national economic output. In the United States, the amount of the Gross Domestic Product that goes to tort costs is 2.2%. That’s twice what it is in Germany (1.1%) and nearly three times what it is in Japan (.8%). The United Kingdom and France spend even less on tort costs than Japan.

While there is certainly a place for legitimate lawsuits, excessive litigation has become such an everyday part of life in America that many people don’t notice it anymore. And it’s why the holiday season, in addition to being the most wonderful time of the year, is also the most warningful time of the year.

If judges and lawmakers begin telling plaintiff lawyers with regularity that personal responsibility and common sense still have a place in America’s courts, product makers won’t need to keep putting common sense warnings on their products. Until that happens, we’ll continue seeing labels like the one found on a pair of shin pads used by bikers that warns: “Shin pads cannot protect any part of the body they do not cover.”

If you find a hilarious, common sense warning on one of the gifts you receive, send it to us for a chance to win the $1,000 grand prize in our Wacky Warning Label Contest.

Giving Thanks For Alternatives To Traditional Litigation

Tribal CourtAs Americans celebrate Thanksgiving this week, children in schools across the nation are learning about how the first Pilgrims relied on Native Americans to survive their first year. That’s an important part of our history, but there is still a lot that we can learn from Native American tribes today, including how to use courts to resolve conflicts.

Did you know that there are about one hundred and fifty tribal courts across the United States? Unlike state and federal courts that use an adversarial system to resolve disputes, many tribal courts use a different approach.

The National Institute of Justice, an agency of the US Department of Justice, points out that while some indigenous justice systems are based on the American paradigm for courts, many others use a holistic philosophy that focuses not just on punishment and providing victims with payment, but on bringing harmony and peace to the community.

According to the NIJ website:

“The holistic philosophy is a circle of justice that connects everyone involved with a problem or conflict on a continuum, with everyone focused on the same center. The center of the circle represents the underlying issues that need to be resolved to attain peace and harmony for the individuals and the community. The continuum represents the entire process, from disclosure of problems, to discussion and resolution, to making amends and restoring relationships.”

Sounds a lot more constructive than traditional litigation, for sure. Because of its many benefits, US courts have adopted some of this philosophy in recent years and now actively promote alternatives to litigation like mediation and arbitration. Not only is alternative dispute resolution usually much less expensive, aggravating and time-consuming than litigation, it has a tremendous success rate.

It’s so successful, in fact, that state and local governments around the country fund mediation programs and strongly encourage courts to utilize them. Unfortunately, many people still don’t even know these programs exist and often unnecessarily spend tens of thousands of dollars on lawyers when their problem could be better resolved in mediation or arbitration.

One big reason for this is likely that we’re bombarded with ads by personal injury lawyers and rarely hear anything about mediation or arbitration in the media. If we counted how many ads there are on TV for personal injury lawyers compared to ads for mediation services, I’d guess there would be about 100,000 ads for personal injury firms for every one ad there is for mediation, and that’s probably being conservative.

Mediation and arbitration aren’t going to work in all disputes, but this Thanksgiving, it’s important to know that alternative dispute resolution is available, and it often leaves people thankful they ditched their lawsuit and tried something new. For more information, one great source is the National Association for Community Mediation.

Lack Of Flesh-Sensing Technology On Table Saw Leads To Money-Sensing Lawsuits

Table SawIt probably wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that one the most amazing inventions in the power tool industry over the past 20 years is a table saw that can stop the blade virtually instantly when it comes into contact with skin. It’s an incredible product, but unfortunately, it has spawned numerous personal injury lawsuits, too. Here’s the story.

Using a patented braking system, the flesh-sensing technology can stop a spinning blade when it comes into contact with skin so quickly that it leaves a user with a minor cut instead of a lost finger. It was invented in 1999, but it’s still hard to find them in stores. One big reason is a fear of lawsuits. Many retailers are worried that if the blade doesn’t stop every time and someone is injured, they’ll be sued. In today’s litigious society, this is a constant and very real fear.

With thousands of the common table saws still being used, there are many people still being injured. One of those people is Victor Ingram.

According to an article in the legal publication, the Cook County Record, Ingram claims to have suffered permanent injuries after his fingers came in contact with the blade of a Sears Craftsman table saw. Even though the saw worked exactly as advertised and was safe when used properly, Ingram’s lawyer claimed the saw was “defectively designed” simply because it didn’t include flesh-sensing technology.

The lawsuit is still pending, but it’s likely that Ingram’s lawyer knows about other similar lawsuits, including one by a Massachusetts man who won $1.5 million. In that case, he was injured after removing the blade guard on the saw, but that didn’t stop him from being able to convince a jury that the real reason for his injury was that his saw was defective because it didn’t have the saw stop technology. Read more about that at FineWoodWorking.com.

Now, I want to be clear, it would be wonderful to see this technology on every saw in America. But it would also be wonderful if all cars were as safe as Sherman tanks. The reality is, that’s just not realistic. If courts are going to require product makers to put every expensive innovation on their products that might be available, many consumers won’t be able to afford the things they need, and some products won’t come to market for fear of lawsuits.

More and more these days, judges and juries are being asked to overlook personal responsibility in order to award someone money who was injured by a product that is safe when used correctly. That is the real issue here.