The following is a Q & A session with Wacky Warning Labels contest founder Bob Dorigo Jones. Bob is a Senior Fellow at the Center for America and is the author of the book, Remove Child Before Folding. He has appeared in hundreds of media outlets—including this episode of PolitiChicks.tv–to discuss the annual contest.
JK: What inspired you to want to start the Wacky Warning Labels contest?
BDJ: The short answer is that I was inspired to start the Wacky Warning Label Contest after seeing a label on the cape of a Batman costume that warned, “Cape does not enable user to fly.” Gee, that’s a pretty obvious warning, right?! But the long answer is that I saw an opportunity in that label to start a contest and use other funny warnings to ignite a conversation in America about an issue I care deeply about but which isn’t particularly funny: lawsuit abuse. Most of the wacky labels we see are designed to discourage frivolous lawsuits.
Like a lot of people, it bothers me that we live in the most lawsuit-happy society on earth. All of the lawsuits clogging our courts make the things we buy more expensive and rob us of some amazing products that could really enhance our lives. Excessive litigation has also actually made our communities less safe and robbed us of many basic freedoms that we once took for granted.
That’s heavy stuff, but it isn’t necessarily a pressing concern for most Americans because other things like our jobs, family responsibilities and issue-overload distract us from focusing on this problem, let alone solving it. By having a contest every year that spotlights how some of these lawsuits have forced product makers to put the most hilarious, common sense and obvious warnings on their own products, we are able to draw the public into a conversation about why lawsuit abuse exists and how it affects our families and communities. In other words, the contest puts the focus on the issue, and that’s the first step toward solving the problem and making life better.
Over the years, the Wacky Warning Label Contest has been featured in publications as different as the Wall Street Journal and the National Enquirer, has been quoted in speeches on the floor of Congress, and has been the focus of stories on virtually every major TV and radio network in America. It has allowed us to use humor to introduce the issue of lawsuit abuse to millions of people, and that’s why we are now in our 17th year of the contest.
JK: What has been, in your opinion, the most outrageous warning label found to date?
BDJ: This is probably the hardest question for me to answer because there are so many outrageous warning labels. However, the warning label that my publisher chose to put on the cover of our book about wacky labels definitely is one of my favorites. It was found on a baby stroller and warns: “Remove child before folding.” My other favorite is the warning on a four-inch fishing lure that has three hooks dangling off one end. It warns: “Harmful if swallowed.” Of course, the fish doesn’t know that until it’s too late.
JK: Shouldn’t we have warning labels on certain products? After all, we need to protect children.
BDJ: Absolutely. There are thousands of warning labels on products that we need to read. For example, all of us should read the warnings on medicine very carefully. There are also often side effects or dangers of products that aren’t obvious at first blush. When that is the case, warnings help protect us from injury.
In fact, we turn down a large number of hilarious warning labels each year because, even though they may be funny, they’re needed. Here’s one example. On the box of PMS Midol, there is a warning not to use it if you have an enlarged prostate. That’s pretty funny because anyone who has a prostate (men only) isn’t going to have PMS (sorry, women), but since there is a reasonable chance that a guy may some day have such a bad headache that he decides to use his wife’s PMS Midol to make it go away, that warning needs to be there if he has an enlarged prostate. So, while that’s a very funny label, it needs to be there.
One of the big problems with warning labels today, though, is that consumers have become so used to reading labels that are common sense that they don’t read any warnings at all. There is warning label overload. Hopefully, our contest motivates a lot of people to look for funny warnings on their products and, in the meantime, read the ones they need.
Our contest focuses on the labels that are common sense and which are most likely on the product either because of a lawsuit or to ward off a lawsuit. The warning label on a Dremmel wood router used by many carpenters which says: “Not intended for use as a dental drill” is such a label.
JK: What is the correlation between the Wacky Warning Labels and frivolous litigation?
BDJ: A certain number of lawyers have figured out that they can make a lot of money by suing product makers when someone has ignored common sense and injured him- or herself. To be honest, all lawyers probably know this, but most of them are ethical and don’t abuse the court system by filing frivolous lawsuits that try to extort money out of an innocent product maker just to enrich themselves.
Unfortunately, there are enough lawyers in America who are willing to file a frivolous lawsuit so that product makers have to worry about being sued even when they are innocent of any wrongdoing. Also, there are too many judges who allow these lawsuits to proceed in court even though they should be dismissed. There are actually laws and court rules that prohibit frivolous lawsuits, and trial lawyers point that out whenever I debate them. However, the problem is that many judges simply ignore those laws and rules for a variety of reasons.
The product liability lawsuits that are filed against product makers when there has been an injury almost always accuse of product maker of a “failure to warn” about the danger that led to the injury. So, in an effort to protect themselves from those kinds of frivolous lawsuits that can cost anywhere from thousands of dollars to hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars, product makers have begun warning us about every conceivable danger, even when it’s obvious. That’s why we see warning labels like the one on a motorized go-cart that warns: “This product moves when used.” Duh! The go-cart maker would probably be sued if it didn’t move when used!
JK: How can one submit a Wacky Warning Label if they find one?
BDJ: It is very easy to enter our contest. If someone finds a warning label they would like to submit to the contest, they can take a picture of it and email it to the Center for America. It’s best to take one picture of the product and one picture of the warning label and send both to us. Our email address and other rules can be found at CenterForAmerica.org. If the label qualifies for our contest, we will often ask the person for more information and to keep the product handy.
In May of each year, we pick the five wackiest labels that have been sent to us during the 12 previous months and then let a television audience pick the top three cash prize winners ($1,000 is the grand prize). The cash prize winners are selected by a studio audience of John Stossel’s show on FOX. After they pick the winners, the Center for America mails out the checks. So, keep an eye out for wacky warning labels!
One last thing. Anyone who would like to hear short, interesting stories about the lawsuits that make these labels necessary and that affect other aspects of our lives, they can do so by clicking on the “Let’s Be Fair” link at the Center for America’s website. These radio commentaries are done in a Paul Harvey-type fashion and are filled with stories that will often shock and amaze, and they’re only one minute long each!
Please visit www.centerforamerica.org for more details on the 2014 Wacky Warning Labels contest.