First Prize Not an Honor

Published January 12, 2007

A Wisconsin-based washing machine manufacturer won first prize in a nationwide contest last week, but it’s not necessarily an honor. Alliance Laundry Systems LLC of Ripon, Wisconsin, was the winner of the Wackiest Warning Label Contest sponsored by Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch, a watchdog group whose mission is to limit lawsuit abuse.

Alliance won for the label it placed on front-loading commercial washing machines it manufactures under the brand Huebsch Originators. The label reads: “Do not put any person in this washer.”

Alliance’s marketing director, Patti Andresen-Shew, told the Associated Press the warning was prompted by lawsuits brought against other companies after children crept into Laundromat washing machines and older children turned them on. She added: “A front loader is just at the right height–speaking now as a mother and not a corporate spokeswoman–for a 4-year-old.”

The label on a personal watercraft won second prize: “Never use a lit match or open flame to check fuel level.” Like no one knows gasoline explodes?

Third place was a tie between the label on a Super Lotto ticket warning “Do not iron”–what if it was a $50 million winner?–and a cell phone label that cautioned “Don’t try to dry your phone in a microwave oven.” Guess what folks, it’s not a frozen dinner.

A telephone book won honorable mention for the statement on its cover: “Please do not use this directory while operating a moving vehicle.” What’s next? Warnings on makeup that say “Do not apply while driving?”

If it weren’t so sad, it would be funny.

We’ve become so accustomed to various warning labels that we often forget their proliferation is a direct result of frivolous litigation. When runaway juries fail to penalize plaintiffs in frivolous cases for their own stupidity–it’s called “contributory negligence” in legalese–they think they are raiding corporate deep pockets. In fact, the pockets they are picking are their own.

According to a study released in December 2006 by Towers Perrin Tillinghast, lawsuit abuse imposes a “tort tax” of $880 per year on every person in the United States. Tillinghast projects tort costs grew in 2006 at a rate of 3.5 percent, with 4.5 percent growth projected for 2007 and 2008. The projected increase is based on actions against pharmaceutical companies, obesity–related litigation, and asbestos claims.

Moreover, according to Robert B. Dorigo Jones, president of Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch, the wackier the warning label, the more inclined consumers are to ignore even the non-wacky ones. This means the cost of lawsuit abuse can be measured in public safety as well.

Educating the jury pool on the costs of frivolous litigation is one powerful tool to reduce the costs of frivolous litigation. Wacky warning label contests help do exactly this, by making it plain that frivolous litigation has many consequences for us all.

Maureen Martin ([email protected]), an attorney, is senior fellow for legal affairs at The Heartland Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Chicago that promotes free-market solutions to social and economic problems.