Abnormal Interviews: Bob Dorigo Jones, Founder of the Wacky Warning Labels Contest

Today, we here at Abnormal Use continue our series, “Abnormal Interviews,” in which we conduct brief interviews with law professors, practitioners and other commentators in the field. For this latest installment, we turn to Bob Dorigo Jones, the Senior Fellow for the Center for America, the president of Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch, and the author of  Remove Child Before Folding, The 101 Stupidest, Silliest and Wackiest Warning Labels Ever.   Not too long ago, we wrote about his well known Wacky Warning Labels Contest.  Intrigued, we couldn’t resist requesting an interview, which he was kind enough to grant.

The interview is as follows:

1.  What was your inspiration for the Wacky Warning Label Contest?

In 1997, I heard about a Batman cape that actually came with a label warning, “Cape does not enable user to fly,” and that got me thinking about all of the obvious warnings we see in America. Most people have seen labels like that, and since they’re not only funny, but are there because of lawsuit abuse, we thought it would be a good way to spark a national conversation about the need for common sense legal reform.  It worked, and it’s been a great vehicle for educating the public about the larger lawsuit abuse issue and how it affects everyone from job providers and doctors to the Little League, Girl Scouts and soup kitchens that feed the poor.

2.  You’ve been doing the contest for 14 years.  What has been your favorite label submission from those years, and why?

One of my favorites is a warning label on a scooter that says, “This product moves when used.”  Well, of course, it does!  The manufacturer would probably be sued if it didn’t move.  Unfortunately, accidents often happen when kids are playing, so the manufacturer put this obvious warning on its products because, in America, if you make a product, you’re constantly looking over your shoulder for the next lawsuit. It’s sad, but it’s a fact of life now.  The next time you see one of those wonderful little silver scooters that kids all around America use, look for that label!

3.  Are there any products out there that do not have labels, but should?

I don’t know about products, but there’s a service that definitely needs a warning.  Every ad for plaintiff lawyers that appears in the telephone book or on television should have a label warning potential customers that there are often better (and by that, I mean more effective and less expensive) ways of solving disputes than lawsuits.  Many people who have legitimate grievances or injuries pay tens of thousands of dollars or much more to lawyers for problems that they could solve themselves or through mediation that might cost as little as $100 to $200.

4.  Have you noticed any recent trends in product labeling that you believe litigators should be aware of? If so, what are they?

One trend that troubles me is that labels are becoming so long and filled with so many obvious warnings that many people don’t read them anymore.  Certainly, there are many warning labels that aren’t wacky and that we all need to read, but there are also user guides that are so long that they have to come with a special key section just to explain the warning labels.  The Food and Drug Administration is well-aware of the problems caused by overwarning and therefore goes to great lengths, although they aren’t always successful, to keep warnings on medicines short and to the point.  I think this is wise.  People need to know about dangers that aren’t common sense.

5.  What do you think these labels tell us about our collective mindset in this country, if anything?

After reading all of the labels in this country that warn us about the obvious, people might think Americans are idiots.  I’m not that cynical.  We’re smart people, and by the way, we’re not anymore likely to hurt ourselves using a product than a person in any other country.  However, these labels do tell us that Americans have a litigation problem and that a certain segment of the population is willing to overlook personal responsibility and sue someone else when they injure themselves.  Even worse, a certain segment of the judicial profession is willing to allow these lawsuits in their courts.  My hope, by working with the Center for America, is to increase public awareness of this problem and help create a collective mindset that is unwilling to accept abuse of the civil justice system any longer.

6.  What do you say to consumer advocates and lawyers who believe these types of labels are necessary?

I ask them why there isn’t any evidence that Americans are better off for all of these warnings.  People in other advanced, industrialized countries like Germany, France, Japan and Australia aren’t being warned like we are that a scooter moves when used, but they aren’t piling up injuries faster than we are.  How do I know?  Because reporters from those countries have come here regularly to interview me and have told me so.  They don’t understand why we put up with the lawsuits that lead to these obvious warnings.  So where’s the benefit?  The only ones benefiting are the personal injury lawyers who now make so much money that they can run ads on TV all day long when legitimate product makers can’t even afford to do that.

Beyond that, I say to the so-called consumer advocates and personal injury lawyers that America is worse off today because of all of the fear they have created in our lives.  Many product makers have refused to bring consumer-friendly products to market because they fear being sued.  This is true in many areas, but it is worst in the area of medicine.  The long warning labels they’ve made necessary on drug packaging are bad enough, but when a mother dying of cancer has to leave her children to go to another country to get medicine that’s not available here because of America’s litigation problem, we have to say, “Enough is enough!”

7.  What do you believe is the best – or the funniest – pop culture depiction of a product label or products liability issue?

One of the funniest things I’ve ever seen is a spoof commercial for a product called “Happy Fun Ball” that aired on “Saturday Night Live” several years ago.  It has a warning that takes up about 90 percent of the commercial and is probably where America is heading if we don’t get a handle on our lawsuit problem.  If you’ve never seen it, I would highly recommend it. Also, one of the funniest books I’ve ever read about frivolous lawsuits was written by a former producer at “Saturday Night Live.”  James Percelay wrote a book called Whiplash! that is the first book you should get after you buy Remove Child Before Folding, The 101 Stupidest, Silliest and Wackiest Warning Labels Ever!

BIOGRAPHY: Bob Dorigo Jones, who serves as Senior Fellow for the Center for America, is the author of the bestselling Remove Child Before Folding, The 101 Stupidest, Silliest and Wackiest Warning Labels Ever. He is the host of a new national radio/Internet commentary, “Let’s Be Fair.” He has also appeared on dozens of national and international TV and radio programs, including NBC Nightly News, ABC News’ 20/20, BBC WorldNews, FOX News, and CNBC.  He also serves as president of Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch (M-LAW), a Center for America partner organization. Prior to joining CFA and M-LAW, Dorigo Jones served on the staff of the Michigan House of Representatives. He received a B.A. in economics and political philosophy from James Madison College at Michigan State University.