It's a rough world out there. Step outside and you could break a leg slipping on your doormat. Fire up the grill and you could burn down the house. Luckily, if the doormat and the barbecue grill fail to warn of looming disaster, a successful lawsuit might compensate you for your troubles. Or so the thinking has gone since the early 1980s, when juries began holding more companies liable fur their customers' mishaps.
Feeling besieged by such lawsuits, companies have responded by writing ever-longer warning labels, trying to anticipate every conceivable mishap. Today, stepladders carry labels that warn, among many other things that you might fall off. The label on a child's Batman cape cautions that the toy “Does not enable user to fly.” And a court ruling in Tennessee last autumn requires that businesses in high-crime areas post signs that warn customers of that fact, or they may risk a lawsuit.
While some warnings are appropriate - the warnings on medicines, for example―it isn't clear that they actually protect the manufacturers and sellers from liability if a customer is injured. Approximately 50% of companies lose when injured customers take them to court.
Now the tide appears to be turning. As personal injury claims continue unabated, some courts are beginning to side with the defendant companies, especially in cases where a warning label probably wouldn't have changed anything. In a court case in Illinois in 1997, a football player who was seriously injured in a game sued the manufacturer who made his helmet. The court concurred that the nature of the game, not the helmet, was the reason for the plaintiff's injury.
In a similar vein, the American Law Institute―a group of judges, lawyers, and academics whose recommendations carry considerable weight―has issued new guidelines stating that companies need not warn customers of obvious dangers or bombard them with a lengthy list of potential ones. “Important information can get buried in a sea of trivia,” says a law professor who helped draft the new guidelines. If the moderate end of the legal community has its way, the day may soon come when information on products might actually be provided for the benefit of customers, and not as protection against legal liability.