In the past century, Americans have witnessed a rise in consumer protection regulation the likes of which may never be seen anywhere else in the world. But these rules weren’t just thought up out of thin air. Every warning, rule, and regulation that is aimed at protecting American customers has its roots in at least one case of civil litigation.
The “Hot Coffee Case”
By 1992, McDonald’s had already been sued by more than 700 plaintiffs claiming they had been scalded by their coffee. However, the fast food chain was still serving coffee to their customers at temperatures as high as 190 degrees Fahrenheit.
That year, in Liebeck v. McDonald’s, 79-year old Stella Liebeck’s attorney proved that the corporation had a rule requiring franchisees to serve the hot beverage at what they knew were temperatures 20 to 30 degrees hotter than other restaurants.
Unfortunately, the fast food chain apparently didn’t learn from its loss in court and had still not lowered the temperature of its coffee by 1997. At that time, another woman, 73-years old, suffered first and second degree burns when a cup of hot coffee spilled in her lap.
The “Chicago Tylenol Murders”
Following the September 1982 deaths of seven poisoning victims, investigators concluded that the perpetrator had acquired the medication from various markets and returned them to store shelves after adding cyanide to the capsules.
The victims had all taken regular doses of Extra-Strength Tylenol and it was determined that the bottles had all been manufactured at several different factories meaning the tampering had occurred after distribution.
The sudden rash of deaths and investigative reports led to the November 1982 development of FDA tamper evident packaging requirements. The new regulations required packaging to have a distinctive indicator or barrier to entry, identifying characteristics, and a label alerting consumers to the presence of tamper evident features.
The “Firestone & Ford Tire Controversy”
Sometimes, fault in liability cases can be difficult to pinpoint. This was all-to-true in the case of the Ford and Firestone recall of August 2000. That year, Firestone preemptively recalled more than 6.5 million tires, most of which had been installed on the Ford Explorer.
Nearly 200 deaths and more than 700 injuries had been cause when three models of 15-inch Bridgestone and Firestone tires were causing roll-over accidents after the tread had separated from the tires.
In attempt to reduce litigation costs, Firestone announced a nationwide recall of the tires instead of waiting for victim’s lawyers to begin filing lawsuits. The Ford Motor Company later pledged to replace some 13 million Wilderness AT tires at their own expense.
So the next time you see a warning label and wonder why it’s necessary just remember that the litigious nature of American society has led government agencies and businesses to err toward the side of caution. If a company doesn’t warn you about the potential dangers of using their product, they can be held liable for sometimes millions of dollars worth of damages. Otherwise, large losses in civil court would only serve to raise prices and reduce employment which is more harmful than a warning label could ever be.