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Understanding Products Liability and Product Warning Labels


Author: Chris Boggs

According to FindLaw.com:

A traditional axiom of products liability law is that a manufacturer or supplier of goods has a duty to warn of any danger from the intended or unintended but reasonably foreseeable use of its products. This duty extends to those using or purchasing the product, as well as to those who could reasonably be expected to be harmed by its use."

Generally, the manufacturer has a duty to warn where:

    • The product supplied is dangerous;
    • The danger is or should be known by the manufacturer;
    • The danger is present when the product is used in the usual and expected manner; and
    • The danger is not obvious or well known to the user.

Once a duty to warn arises, the manufacturer who has provided a warning may still be liable for harm if the warning provided is inadequate.


On the surface this seems a reasonable requirement, but what actions are considered reasonably foreseeable? What actions are so outrageous as to be outside the scope of reasonably foreseeable? What dangers should or should not be obvious to the user. Therein lies the problem; there is no way to know what the court thinks should be reasonably foreseen or obvious to the user. This lack of clarity leads to some ridiculous warning labels.

A classic example of a case where the court felt a manufacturer didn't practice reasonable foreseeability in it warning label is seen on every push lawnmower. Have you ever wondered why it became necessary for there to be a picture of fingers being cut off if you put your hand under the mower? If so, here is why; back in 1978 a man was cutting his grass with a push mower and wanted to also trim his hedges. Rather than go through the trouble of getting the hedge trimmers out of the storage building, he picked up the mower intending to trim the hedges and instead lost his fingers.

Of course, this accident was not the man's fault, he was never told the dangers of sticking his hand under the lawnmower, where the blades are spinning at 3,000 RPM. He sued the manufacturer for failure to warn and won.

Now, this is an urban legend (sorry to disappoint you). There is no proof this ever really happened or whether there was a real case – but you get the point. People are stupid, can't accept their own stupidity, think their injury MUST be someone else's fault, spend all day watching lawyer TV and ultimately sue the manufacturer for their injury. Thus, we have warning labels, some with what appear to be exceptionally ridiculous warnings.

Here are a few you may think never needed to be printed, but evidently the manufacturer thought such use was within the realm of possibility – for the dumbest among us:

  • On a hair dryer: “Do not use while sleeping." You know, I can't count how many times I've woken up styling my hair.
  • On a bottle of grout cleaner: “Do not use in enclosed spaces." If the space was not enclosed and had plenty of ventilation, I probably wouldn't need to clean the mold off the grout.
  • On a collapsible baby carriage: “Remove baby before closing." Oh, so that's why I couldn't get it to lay flat in the trunk. She stopped crying, though.
  • On a curling iron: “For external use only." I'm not even sure I want to address this one.
  • On a wheelbarrow: “Not for highway use." Dang it, I want to ride it like a side car attached to my wife's motorcycle.
  • On an electric drill: “Not intended for use as a dental drill." Oh well, I guess I have to give up my plans to open up a combination “fix-it" shop and dental office.
  • On a vanishing ink pen: “Not to be used to sign legal documents." I wondered why the bank couldn't find proof I had paid them.
  • On an iron-on patch: “Do not iron on while wearing shirt." I guess they are against all time-saving measures.
  • On a package of fireplace logs: “Caution: Risk of Fire." Well, duh! I would be mad if there was NO risk of fire.
  • On a carton of eggs: “Allergy Warning: Contains Eggs." I don't know how to respond.
  • There is NO way to make this one up (and if you are easily offended, please don't read the rest of this one – OK, you have been warned – I don't want to hear anything from anyone). Found on a box of precision screwdrivers: “Not to be inserted into _____." I just can't write it here; but if you would like to see a photo of the actual product warning, email me at chris.boggs@iiaba.net and I will send you the picture. Your email request will serve as acceptance of the consequences and act as a release from liability.

Last Updated: July 6, 2018

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