The number of warnings that we see on everyday products that we buy in stores has almost become a running joke. From the well-known “do not try this at home” to the often mocked “do not eat” instruction on products that we do not assume anyone would ever try to eat, the warnings are everywhere. Often, they are so long and detailed, that we do not even read them.
Why do We Need Warnings?
Admittedly, some of these warnings are overkill; a desperate attempt to try to avoid liability by warning of every possible danger that could occur from a product, even those that are far-fetched. The rationale behind putting warnings on products has a solid basis in American law. Every day, we rely on products that are potentially dangerous if they are misused—in fact, many of those products are things we need.
Warnings are there to make sure that consumers know about dangers that they could not possibly know about on their own. This is especially true when the potential danger is known to the product manufacturer and the manufacturer knows a consumer would likely not be aware of a potential hazard.
Everyday Products Have Hidden Dangers
We often assume that any product that is allowed to be sold in stores and come into our home must be safe, but that is not always the case. For example, many laundry detergent tablets are corrosive to human skin and internal tissue. Tablets that are ingested, usually by young children, can eat away at the internal linings of the organs and cause death.
The manufacturer of a product like laundry detergent is charged with knowing that they are putting a product into a household that may harm young children, that the product is small and colorful and may look like candy to a young child, and that while the average American may know not eat laundry detergent tablets, they may not know how dangerous ingesting them can be.
Thus, the law requires warnings on these products to alert families to take special care if the product is ingested and that ingesting them is reason to get immediate medical attention.
Most of us are not chemists. We cannot anticipate the result when two chemicals are mixed together. You may assume that mixing two common household cleaning products, chlorine bleach and ammonia, is safe. You may assume like many families do that using these two effective cleaning products together would result in some kind of “super cleaning” fluid.
You would be assuming wrong. In fact, mixing these two household products results in chloramine fumes so hazardous that when inhaled they can cause respiratory arrest and death almost immediately.
Knowing that most people would have no idea that quick death could come by mixing two products commonly sold in stores, the manufacturer is required to put warnings on the labels. Again, this is mandatory because of the highly foreseeable event of someone trying to combine these two products for cleaning purposes.
Government Regulation of Warning Labels
With many products, such as pesticides, the Environmental Protection Agency or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires that manufacturers put government approves warnings on products. This can produce a good and bad effect legally.
Surely, it is always a good thing to require companies to disclose dangers, and uniformity in the wording and nature of the disclosures makes it easier for consumers to see and understand them.
However, in some cases, when a manufacturer complies with a government-mandated disclosure, a consumer cannot later sue for a failure to warn of a danger in the product. In other words, simply putting up the disclosure the government requires immunizes companies from liability, even if that disclosure may be incomplete or confusing.
This immunity only applies when the government specifies the exact language of the disclosure. When the government says that a warning must be made, but allows companies to create their own warning language and labels, the companies can still be sued for improper or incomplete warnings.
For example, the Consumer Product Safety Commission requires warning labels on certain products, but does not dictate what the warning must say, nor does it review a warning for sufficiency or accuracy unless specifically asked to by a company.
Companies Get Sloppy With Warnings
Often manufacturers will skimp on the sufficiency of warnings. Sometimes it is because there is insufficient space on the product itself to fully warn. Other times, manufacturers may fear scaring off customers, and opt to purposely omit details about a product’s potential dangers.
When a company makes its own decisions on what to include on a label and how to say it, a lawsuit can be brought for insufficient or inaccurate warnings.
As you can imagine, in any lawsuit for failure to warn of a dangerous product, the very first defense is that the consumer did not read the disclosure. Thus, lawsuits aside, the very first rule in common sense safety is to read warning labels on products.
Sometimes, however, labels are made in a way that discourages consumers from reading them. They may be placed on separate sheets of paper in the product’s box, where it is not easily found. The warnings may be as small as specs of dust, or buried in paragraphs of unrelated text.
Where a warning is put in such a way that it can be anticipated that it would be overlooked or missed by a consumer, the fact that there is a complete warning may not be a defense, nor would the consumer’s failure to see and read the warning be a defense.
If you are injured as a result of a defective product, make sure you have attorneys and expert witnesses who can determine if you have a failure to warn case. Contact Brill & Rinaldi today about a free consultation to discuss your case and your injuries.