Thursday, January 18, 2007

JUSTICE SPOTLIGHT: The Creator of "Wacky Warning Label" Contest

This is the first in what we hope will be a regular series of Q&A's with policy and opinion leaders who are making a difference in the fight for common sense lawsuit reforms. This week, we had the opportunity to interview Bob Dorigo Jones, president of Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch (M-LAW). Bob is the brainchild behind M-LAW's annual "Wacky Warning Label Contest," which garners major national media coverage each year. This year, he released "Remove Child Before Folding, The 101 Stupidest, Silliest and Wackiest Warning Labels Ever" - a hilarious new book based on M-LAW’s annual warning label contest.

Q: How long have you been doing this contest?

BDJ: M-LAW’s Wacky Warning Label Contest started in 1997. The first year, the contest winners were selected by the host of a new afternoon radio program on WJR, AM-760 in Detroit: Mitch Albom (the same Mitch Albom who went on to author three of the bestselling books of the past decade including Tuesdays With Morrie). For the past six years, the winners have been selected by the audience of the popular Radio Hall of Fame personality, Dick Purtan, on WOMC 104.3 FM in Detroit from a list compiled by M-LAW.< Q: What was the impetus to start doing it?

BDJ: M-LAW started the Wacky Warning Label Contest because we thought we could use humor as a hook to engage the media and the public in a more serious debate about how excessive litigation is harming our society. People love reading about these wacky warnings, and they want to hear the stories behind them and about loony lawsuits.

However, most people tune out conversation about tort reform either because it’s confusing or they’re too busy to listen. We use the media attention from the contest to increase awareness about how groups like the Girl Scouts and Little League are hurt by high litigation costs, and about how consumers ultimately pay for lawsuit abuse.

Most people want to learn more about the need for legal reform when they understand it’s a family and community problem, not just an issue for insurance and tobacco companies and big corporations.

Q: How many contest entries do you get in a given year? How do you choose the ones that you publicize - or that went into the book?

BDJ: An average of 150-200 people from around the United States send M-LAW wacky warning labels each year. For the contest, we choose labels that give consumers obvious, common sense advice or warnings and that were likely placed on products in response to a lawsuit or because of a concern about lawsuits. We do not accept warnings that warn against a risk that isn’t common knowledge. A warning on a fishing lure with huge hooks on it that says, “Harmful if swallowed,” qualifies, whereas a warning on a box of PMS Midol that says, “Do not use if you have an enlarged prostate,” doesn’t. The Midol warning may be funny, but the risk of prostate damage from using the product isn’t common knowledge.

Q: The Wacky Warning Labels contest gets a lot of attention- and garners a lot of laughs from the public. On the other hand -doesn't the fact that there are so many of these warning labels each and every year say something about our culture?

BDJ: Yes, that’s exactly why we sponsor the contest. Product makers have to constantly look over their shoulder for the next lawsuit in our society, even if they haven’t done anything wrong. In a nation where someone can dunk a ball while playing basketball, catch their teeth in the net, then sue the company that makes the nets and walk away from the lawsuit with $50,000, there is something very wrong with the courts. That someone would file such a frivolous lawsuit says something about our culture, but the fact that a judge didn’t dismiss it and penalize the person who filed it says something, too. We want to change that and put common sense and personal responsibility back to work in the civil justice system.

Q: Do you think there's a disconnect in the public between seeing these labels as outrageous ...and understanding the underlying reason we have so many of these labels?

BDJ: Yes, but many people are so busy with their jobs, family and other things that they don’t have time to stop and consider the fact that these labels are all around us because of the constant threat of lawsuits facing manufacturers. However, that is changing because of our contest and the efforts of others involved in legal reform.

Q: Other than their sheer comic nature - what is the real cost to society of these wacky warning labels?

BDJ: As fear of litigation continues to make these kinds of warning labels necessary, and as labels become longer and more absurd, there is a real concern that fewer people actually read them. After all, why spend the time reading warnings about risks that are common sense? Therefore, the personal injury lawyers who say they are protecting consumers by filing frivolous lawsuits that lead to these kinds of warnings are actually hurting public safety efforts in the long run. That is the real cost to consumers.

Q: Have you ever been threatened with lawsuits by any of the wacky label "offenders"?

Banish the thought! No. Actually, M-LAW has been thanked by some of the product makers for using the contest to highlight the erratic nature of the legal system that forces them to put these kinds of warnings on their products. They understand that we hold this contest to educate the public. We’re not making fun of the manufacturers; we’re highlighting a broken legal system. If more people in our society understand that litigation is such a problem that the maker of a wood router has to put a warning on its product saying, “This product is not intended for use as a dental drill,” legal reform is more likely to happen. When that time comes, wacky warning labels won’t be necessary.

Q: In terms of media coverage, Web site hits, etc. ... what is the "return on investment" of M-LAW doing this project?

BDJ: M-LAW simply could not afford to buy the kind of media coverage generated by the Wacky Warning Label Contest. Aside from the cash prizes, there is very little cost. In addition to the public education value, the contest has created opportunities for M-LAW to work with other groups like the American Justice Partnership and Common Good on projects that will provide benefits to families and communities. This contest has opened a lot of doors for our small organization, and we’re working hard to make the best use of these opportunities.

Q: On your Web site, you have a button people can click if they are a"Lawsuit Abuse Victim." Has this been effective in finding real victims of lawsuit abuse?

Absolutely! As I mentioned above, one of the benefits of the contest is that it opens new doors and allows us to partner with other efforts, and the American Justice Parntership’s Victims Project is a great example of that. In a two-day span after M-LAW announced the results of our contest this January, our website was visited by more than 100,000 people. Many of those people shared stories with us about how they were victimized by lawsuit abuse, and we will be using these stories with the AJP to help policymakers understand that common sense legal reform is needed.

Q: M-LAW has recently been heavily involved in the fight to protect Michigan's FDA defense law. How is that fight progressing? How might that effort spill over into a broader effort by the trial bar?

Michigan’s FDA defense law provides reasonable protection from lawsuits for those who make the medicines that help make us healthy or keep us healthy. The personal injury lawyers argue our society would be better off with contingency-fee lawyers filing more lawsuits against an already beleaguered industry. We disagree very strongly with that and believe recent lawsuits based on junk science illustrate the need for tough laws in this area.

The FDA is extremely careful about approving medicine, so much so that some patients who don’t have time to wait for the FDA’s lengthy approval process to run its course go to other countries for medicines and treatments.

As a father and a husband, health care is one of my top concerns, and the last thing I want to hear if someone in my family becomes ill is that the medicine they need isn’t available because a pharmaceutical company decided to halt research due to fear of lawsuits or because litigation costs robbed them of needed investment money. That happens today, but if more states had a law like Michigan’s, which provides protection for drugmakers – and penalties if a company defrauds the FDA – we would all be better off.

Many political pundits believe the personal injury lawyers’ efforts to repeal this law will meet with more success in the next two years because so many of the new Democratic House Majority’s campaign victories were heavily financed by members of the Michigan Trial Lawyers Association. We are hopeful that reason will prevail, and we are working with groups like the Manhattan Institute to educate policymakers about the benefits of the current law.

Q: Looking more broadly at the national and state-based effort to enact meaningful legal reforms ... there has been significant media devoted recently to the notion that the trial bar may be losing the legal reform battle. Do you think this is true or false? In your opinion, when will the fight for legal reform truly be won?

BDJ: Those who support legal reform are definitely making progress, but I think we have a long, long way to go before we can say the trial bar is losing the battle. There has been incremental progress in certain areas of the law, but businesses, medical professionals, community groups and others in most parts of the country are still very vulnerable to a paralyzing meritless lawsuit at any given point in time. If we were to go around the country and ask those who are most vulnerable to being sued if they feel like they’ve beaten the trial bar, I believe we would hear a resounding “No.”

However, I believe the trial bar is losing the American public because the public is becoming more aware that we – as a nation – are not better off for living in the most lawsuit-plagued society on earth. We pay more for products and services, we lose out on some innovative consumer products, and the constant threat of a lawsuit is discouraging volunteers from becoming involved in certain things. The problem is that the trial bar spends millions of dollars to help elect judges and lawmakers who are sympathetic to their views. Until reformers can match their clout either through public education, funding support or other proactive means, the road to reform will be a long one.

Q: Anything else that you want to add?

Yes, we encourage all of your readers to go buy a lot of copies of our new book, that "Remove Child Before Folding, The 101 Stupidest, Silliest and Wackiest Warning Labels Ever" is based on M-LAW’s Wacky Warning Label Contest.

Seriously, we are very pleased that one of the largest publishers in the world, Warner Books, published this book and that it will introduce a whole new audience to the wackiness of our legal system and the need for reform. After reading the book, you won’t know whether to laugh or cry about the state of America’s legal system.

This inexpensive book is available at all major bookstores and can purchased online by clicking here.

It’s the perfect gift for any consumer, business person, lawyer, doctor, professional, grandparent and student. Did we leave anyone out? We should also mention that all the royalties from the book go to support non-partisan efforts to restore fairness and reliability to the courts.

See pictures of the outrageous labels that won this year’s contest and enter a label to win the $500 grand prize by going to our website at:

Q: Thank you.

BDJ: Thank you for the opportunity, especially considering our Detroit Tigers unseated your White Sox as the American League Champions last year. Glad you don’t hold a grudge against a Detroit guy! Of course, the White Sox actually won the World Series when they got there, so we know how good you are!

To read or post comments, visit Illinois Justice Blog.


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