Sunday, September 15, 2013

Do Not Attempt

Warning: This column is written by a professional. Amateurs attempting to re-create the deft use of language contained herein may experience writer’s block, frustration, stress, shameful displays of temper, mood swings, imbibing of alcohol and a permanent state of skepticism.

We live in a world plastered with disclaimers, the price a civilization pays for producing mass armies of lawyers at war with a lawsuit-happy populace.
For example: I was watching TV recently when a beer commercial appeared that showed a gentleman being lifted skyward on the trunk of a huge elephant. “Do not attempt,” it intoned. 
A commercial for Fiat showed their cars driving off a cliff into an azure sea off the Italian coast, then emerging on the beach in America. Again, we were warned “Fictionalization. Do not attempt.” 
In a drug store, I saw a thermometer that advised, “Do not use orally after using rectally.” Instant noodles advise that the product “will be hot after heating” and we are admonished that pencils “may be sharp after sharpened.”
We’ve all puzzled over the disclaimer on a package of Christmas tree lights that state they are “for indoor or outdoor use only.”
A label on an iron tells you, “Never iron clothes while they are being worn;” automotive sunshades come with the warning, “do not drive with sunshade in place.” Baby strollers advise, “Remove child before folding.”
A few years back, a commercial for Saturn automobiles featured testimony from an owner who was involved in an accident with a truck, but “thanks to the superior safety features of his Saturn,” he was able to walk away unscathed. Meanwhile, the Saturn legal department added this sobering disclaimer in the corner of the screen: “Actual crash results may vary.”
An ad for Visa (the credit card) showed a pregnant woman picking out house paint with her husband, trying to get just the right shade of vermilion. When she finally finds the shade she wants, saying “This is going to be perfect,” the scene switches to her in a football stadium screaming “Catch the stinkin’ ball, stinker!” with her face painted in the vermilion and light-blue colors of her team. A disclaimer at the bottom of the screen reads “Do not paint your face with house paint.”
The consensus hall of famer is the warning on a child’s Superman costume: “Wearing of this garment does not enable you to fly.”
Gee, and I was going to drive a Fiat off a cliff while wearing a Superman costume, my face covered in house paint.  Are we really that stupid?
There’s no hard-and-fast rule on when ­disclaimers must be used, according to the website HowStuffWorks. Most times it’s based on what the TV network legal departments demand.
Networks are trying to cover their fannies in case someone decides to “try this at home.” If a child recreates a stunt he or she sees in a commercial and is injured, the network that ran the ad would take the heat.
Other times, the advertising client’s legal department will demand a disclaimer to avoid potential lawsuits. This decision is usually made by the client before the commercial is even in the can.
But before we write off the networks and manufacturers as impossibly paranoid, maybe we should consider the kinds of product liability lawsuits that get filed.
— Richard Overton sued Anheuser-Busch for false and misleading advertising under Michigan State law. The complaint specifically referenced ads involving, among other things, fantasies of beautiful women in tropical settings that came to life for two men driving a Bud Light truck. In addition to two claims of false advertising, Overton included a third claim in his complaint in which he claimed to have suffered emotional distress, mental injury and financial loss in excess of $10,0000 due to the misleading Bud Light ads.
— An Oregon lawyer is suing because his lilies didn’t include a warning label that the flowers are toxic to cats. The flowers, which did have a warning for humans, were eventually eaten by the lawyer’s cat, leading to days of kitty dialysis.
— Brenda Hurff of Washington Township, New Jersey, filed suit for $100,000 in damages after a fire was started in her kitchen by “unattended food.” Apparently, Mrs. Hurff had put a cherry Pop-Tart in her toaster and had forgotten about it, as she left home to take her children to school. When she returned, about 20 minutes later, she found firefighters extinguishing her flaming kitchen. Despite the warning on the Pop-Tart box not to “leave the toaster appliance unattended due to possible risk of fire,” Mrs. Hurff is suing Kellogg’s and Black & Decker, maker of the toaster, for damages.
On the other side of the coin was the famous McDonald’s hot coffee case which to many people was the last word in frivolous litigation.
It seems 79-year-old Stella Liebeck spilled a cup of McDonald’s coffee on her lap. She sued and won a settlement of more than $2 million. Outrageous? Not so fast.
It turned out that McDonalds kept their coffee bubbling at a scalding 180-190 degrees, so hot that Ms. Liebeck suffered third-degree burns on six percent of her skin and lesser burns over 16 percent. She remained in the hospital for eight days while she underwent skin grafting. During this period, Liebeck lost 20 pounds (nearly 20 percent of her body weight), reducing her to 83 pounds. Two years of medical treatment followed.
Liebeck sought to settle with McDonald’s for $20,000 to cover her actual and anticipated expenses, according to published reports. Her past medical expenses were $10,500; her anticipated future medical expenses were approximately $2,500; and her loss of income was approximately $5,000 for a total of approximately $18,000.  Instead, the company offered only $800. When McDonald’s refused to raise its offer, Liebeck sued. And won.
The moral of the story? It appears we will never have to worry about unemployment in the legal profession.

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