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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Consider Yourself Warned.(justification of warning labels).

Recently I bought a new front-loading washer and dryer to replace the set we acquired as a wedding gift. As a reflection of how much technology has changed since our nuptials, the manufacturer included an instructional DVD explaining the proper use and features of the set. One particular warning was memorable: Drying gasoline-soaked clothes will void the manufacturer's warranty.

One has to wonder where that came from. While I'm no products liability law expert, I'm guessing the company inserted that warning after learning that people don't naturally understand the danger inherent in combining high heat and flammable petroleum products. Likely, the lawyer overseeing the production of the instructional DVD had a list of warnings that just had to be shoehorned in somewhere. "Let's see, do not insert animals or children or, oh yeah, gasoline-soaked garments into the dryer."

The washing machine company is not alone in including goofy warnings with its products. Now consumers see warnings on insecticide that read, "Do not ingest, sickness may result "; warnings on sleeping pills that read, "May cause drowsiness "; and warnings on hot chocolate that read, "Do not drink until cool." Warnings on wood chippers depict stick people's various body parts being turned into tree mulch. There are even warnings on toy swords advising against swinging them in the presence of children.

Why do manufacturers attach such idiotic warnings? It's because people do idiotic things. Take my kids for instance. One day recently they were banished to the backyard for bickering during dad's newspaper-reading time. After about a half hour, they could be heard playing happily outside and emitting giggles of conspiratorial cooperation. This raised my suspicions, so I followed the sounds to our side yard, where I found them playing tetherball with aluminum baseball bats.

Why, I asked, didn't anyone consider whether their new sport was safe? I directed my arched brow and gimlet eye to my 12-year-old daughter, who was hefting the bat she had named "sledgehammer." After an awkward silence, my 6-year-old, who was hefting the "bone crusher," had an epiphany and disappeared into the garage. He reappeared wearing a batting helmet and offered a second helmet to his older sister. Dad's safety lecture on the incompatibility of skulls and baseball bats having been mooted by this simple solution, the combatants prepared to resume their bat swinging, ball thumping and general good times. If only there had been an instructional DVD.

Grown-Ups, Too

Questionable judgment is not limited to kids. I occasionally camp with a group of dads and their kindergarten-age sons who also have a penchant for campfires. The difference is that normal campfires are apparently too boring for these dads. So what is the solution? Magnesium, of course.

Each trip one of these dads brings magnesium strips to throw into the fire at otherwise sleepy moments, so we all can watch the bright white light, which, now that I think about it, is about as smart as watching arc welding without goggles. Now that I think about it further, whatever chemical is emitted from burning magnesium is probably not very healthy either.

As a lawyer-dad, I know how this fun could end up. I can just imagine my deposition after some camper catches fire at one of these ber-campfires:

Q. Now, Mr. Malin, I understand that you in fact attended one of these magnesium campfires. Is that true?

A. Well, "attended" is a pretty strong word.

Q. After one of your comrades threw the magnesium into the fire, what did the group decide to do next?

A. Roast marshmallows, although our coat hangers kept melting.

Q. Did this raise any safety alarms in your mind?

A. Not really. I was just happy that the kids were finally done riding the jet skis.

Q. Are you saying you had no concerns about throwing a flammable metal into a raging fire?

A. Well, it wasn't like there was any sort of warning.

As most lawyer-parents know, neither having children nor practicing law comes with any helpful advance warning. Of course, people offer all kinds of advice to soon-to-be lawyers and parents, but how much of it is actually useful, absent personal experience? We don't really believe that these two noble callings -- parenting and lawyering -- will result in our lives being changed forever. Who, for example, teaches us how to talk a skeptical county clerk into accepting a filing without a certificate of conference or how to make an owl costume entirely out of egg cartons, toilet paper rolls and feathers? No one I know of. Rather, we parents and lawyers learn these valuable skills through the school of hard knocks.

One lesson that school does teach is the importance of improvising and of not sweating the small stuff. So, who cares if the owl costume gets a teal-colored yogurt stain just before the family leaves for the Harry Potter midnight book release party? It's nothing a little gasoline can't get out.

Steve Malin is of counsel in the Dallas office of Sidley Austin Brown & Wood and the father of four children, one of whom drew this picture in exchange for a new carbon fiber "sledgehammer." He practices commercial and patent litigation in Texas and around the country.

Source Citation:Malin, Steve. "Consider Yourself Warned." Texas Lawyer (August 8, 2005): NA. Academic OneFile. Gale. BROWARD COUNTY LIBRARY. 22 Aug. 2009

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