Warning! – No Napping While Driving This Vehicle!

Warning! – No Napping While Driving This Vehicle!

Say what? Come again?

Sure: while you’re driving this vehicle, don’t try to take a nap, as this could be a risky thing to do.

We’re all walking on legal eggs— worried morning, noon, and night about being sued for one thing or another. This is especially true if you are in business. If the way that you earn a living is by offering a professional service on the American (or world) marketplace or by producing a physical, tangible product for purchase, welcome to what I refer to in my law classes as “your exposure to liability.”

To paraphrase the old saying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” let me coin a new phrase: “liability is in the eye of the beholder.” If you are the seller of a product based on which you are sued by the purchaser, you might start to wonder whether or not our culture, our legal system ever holds the consumer responsible for his own carelessness, negligence, misuse or abuse of a product. On the other hand, if you happen to be the user of the product who gets injured by the product, you might want to be reassured that the manufacturer will be responsible for your injuries and their related consequences.

One of my favorite teaching tools for the law classes I teach is metaphors. One of my favorite metaphors is that of an accordion. One of the ideas employed is that the accordion represents our ever-expanding exposure to liability for products we put out in the marketplace which cause injuries. The accordion is ever expanding; it’s never contracted back inwards to the prior point; in other words, our liability is never lessened; it’s always increased. It’s almost like a law of nature, well known, understood and predictable.

To try to minimize their liability as much as possible, manufacturers have all manner of warnings and precautions attached to their products. It’s not as if in doing so that a manufacturer will be let off the hook completely for an injury from its products; but in the eyes of a judge and jury, the presence of a warning may help to lessen the award of money damages that they might otherwise award. In fact, there’s always the possibility that the manufacturer just might escape liability altogether.

Warnings and disclaimers, though two sides of the same coin, are nonetheless different and offer the manufacturer two different kinds of “coverage;” a warning might be like ‘flammable, do not use near fire;” while a disclaimer is more likely to say, “not liable for burns due to misuse.”

The whole business of warning labels on physical, tangible products is a fascinating area of study and analysis by anthropologists, sociologists and even historians. Why would this be so? Warnings and labels can be seen as reflecting much of the underlying culture which produces them. With the proliferation of so many products and consumer goods on the American market, there are bound to be personal injuries and even property damage from misuse, carelessness, and abuse of such goods.

The conspicuous use of warnings raises questions such as: do consumers even read them; to what extent do we hold people responsible for their own carelessness or even stupidity; with a multicultural society, how many different languages do warnings have to be in; what does the widespread need for warnings say about our fractious culture; what products are no longer available to the consumer due to too much litigation; how does all this product liability business effect the insurance industry and the cost of liability insurance; what businesses have actually gone out of business due to excessive litigation.

What’s the underlying cause of all this warning label business? Who’s at fault here? Who’s to blame and who can we point the finger to? …to be continued in the next edition.

Warning: reading this legal column will make you a smarter consumer!

Turner Law Offices will take all the credit, thank you.


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