Defects in Warnings
A product may still be considered dangerous even if there was no design flaw and it was manufactured properly. Under general legal principles, a product may be defective "because of inadequate instructions or warnings when the foreseeable risks of harm posed by the product could have been reduced or avoided by the provision of reasonable instructions or warnings by the seller or other distributor...and the omission of the instructions or warnings renders the product not reasonably safe." In other words, if the manufacturer simply releases the product to the public without any instruction, they can be found liable for resulting injuries.
The Manufacturer's Duties
A manufacturer is under two related duties when creating warning labels and instructions:
- First, the manufacturer is required to warn users of hidden dangers that may be present in a product.
- Second, the manufacturer must instruct users how to use a product so that the users can avoid any dangers and use the product safely.
An example could involve a string of lights that is prone to overheating if operated for more than three hours continuously. After three hours, the lights could present a fire risk. If the manufacturer fails to provide a warning about the potential danger of the product, then a plaintiff who is injured in a fire started by the product could recover not only for a defect in the design of the lights, but also for the inadequate warnings regarding the danger posed by the lights.
A warning generally must be clear and specific. It should also be conspicuous and placed in a location that the user can easily find. Many consumers are familiar with these warning stickers: They typically are bright orange, red, or yellow, and have warnings and brief instructions writing in black block letters. However, there is no proscribed form for warnings. Sometimes they appear on the product packaging, on the product itself, in the instruction booklet, or in all three places. Additionally, the warning must be comprehensible. Many manufacturers now provide warnings in foreign languages and by using symbols so that children and non-English speaking users can be aware of dangers associated with a product.
When a Warning is Required
Even though many companies choose to include warnings with their products regardless of the danger, warnings are not actually required in every case. Warnings are generally required when:
- The product presents a danger;
- The manufacturer knows about the danger;
- The danger is present when the product is reasonably used in its intended manner; and
- The danger is not obvious to the reasonable user.
What kinds of activities constitute "reasonable use" and what dangers are "obvious to the reasonable consumer" will vary from product to product and user to user. For example, anyone who grew up in Christian households before the 2000's knows that Christmas lights can overheat and should be left off when leaving the house. However, as technology improves and stringed lights make use of bulbs that do not emit heat, the danger posed by incandescent lights will be less obvious.
The Consumer's Responsibilities
The flip side of the requirement to warn consumers of dangerous conditions is that consumers have to abide by those warnings. If the owner of a string of lights leaves the lights on for hours at a time in an empty house around flammable material, despite warnings that doing so may pose a fire risk, her product liability suit may fail because the warning was inadequate.