Better Safe . . .

Does your product need a warning label? Don't get burned--consider all the potential dangers.
Magazine Contributor
3 min read

This story appears in the July 2003 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

We've all had a good laugh over product warnings. "Silica gel--do not eat." "Coffee may be hot." "Remove child before folding stroller." But if you get sued because someone was injured by your product, the issue of warning labels is no laughing matter. A consumer injured while using a product can not only sue the manufacturer, but also the supplier, dealer, distributor or rental yard. The consumer can argue the product design was defective, that there was a manufacturing defect, or that someone should have warned people they could get hurt.

"The duty to warn requires that the consumer receive notice of potential dangers associated with the product," says Columbus, Ohio, attorney Joseph Gerling of Lane, Alton & Horst , who specializes in insurance defense. "This includes potential consequences associated with foreseeable misuses." Fortunately, judges and juries recognize that people do stupid things, and no company can be expected to foresee them all. Gerling describes a case in which a man used a water meter to measure the flow of sulfuric acid. Someone had previously used the meter for water, some of which remained in the meter, which then interacted with the acid and blew up in the man's face. He sued, claiming there should have been a warning not to use it for acid. "We argued that it says 'water meter' in large letters right on the product," Gerling says. The judge dismissed the case.

If you foresee a danger, either through proper use or foreseeable misuse, it's best to put a warning right on the product in as permanent a manner as possible. If that's not feasible, put it in the instructions. Gerling notes that pictorial warnings are becoming more popular, especially when many of the users might not be able to read English. Consider who is most likely to use your product.

How do you know when you need a warning label? Gerling advises:

Stay informed about injuries that have occurred through the use of your product or similar ones on the market.

Notice what warnings your competitors are using on their products.

Set up a review process so your company periodically examines warning labels to make sure they're adequate.

Give buyers an address, telephone number and e-mail address where consumers can express any concerns they may have. Such comments may tip you off to a problem.

The duty to warn extends for the life of the product. So if you discover that people are getting injured, you may need to issue a warning to known buyers and take steps to get the word out, such as hanging posters in retail stores. You also need to put a label on any unsold product. Follow the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's ( ) guidelines on reporting hazards.

Fearing litigation, some companies plaster their products with idiotic warnings. A label on a box of nails warns "CAUTION! Do NOT swallow nails! May cause irritation!" A tin of lighter fluid says "WARNING: Contents flammable!" Says Gerling, "People get desensitized to warnings because you see so many of them." Still, make sure your products carry whatever labels are needed to keep people safe.

Jane Easter Bahls is a writer in Rock Island, Illinois, specializing in business and legal topics.

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