My experiences growing up in NoDak and later working as a crime reporter may not be typical, and perhaps the people I came to know were by some measures outside, shall we say, the social mainstream, but my first thought when I saw these purportedly wacky, useless warning labels was this: “I can see someone doing that!” Personally I’ve seen folks do much more ridiculous things many times.
The issue is whether people doing “ridiculous things” should have a cause of action for their own failure of common sense, or whether we require manufacturers to treat all of their adult customers like infants on pain of liability.
Such overwarnings have real social costs: as numerous studies have documented, if one’s personal watercraft manual says “Never use a lit match or open flame to check fuel level,” one’s going to be less likely to slog through the whole thing and find the warnings that aren’t so obvious. In many cases, the “failure-to-warn” is really just a Trojan horse to force the deep pocket to become a social insurer. In the Vioxx litigation, Mark Lanier has accused Merck of making too many warnings, and thus “hiding” its warning of VIGOR cardiovascular data. This effectively holds a manufacturer strictly liable for failing to anticipate with perfect foresight what risks will accompany which consumers, and tailoring its warnings on that micro-level—and if anyone regrets taking the risk later, they can always complain that the warning was legally insufficient for failing to be scary enough.
The wacky warning awards are often entertaining fluff, to be sure; the marginal harm from a “Do not iron” warning on a lottery ticket is infinitesimal, and is probably there as an anti-fraud device rather than as a product-safety mechanism. But ATLA, abetted by sympathetic law professors and credulous or disingenuous journalists, has engaged in a mass campaign to make equally silly warning cases—such as the McDonald’s coffee case, where Stella Liebeck complained that the warning on her cup of coffee wasn’t “big enough” to adequately warn her not to spill her coffee in her lap and sit in the puddle for ninety seconds—aspirational, rather than outliers. The wacky warnings are the canaries in that coal mine.