In 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.