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There are hundreds, maybe thousands of blog posts out there on how silly product warning labels are – chain saws with warnings not to grab them by the front, coat hangars with “do not swallow” on the package, that sort of thing. Never gets old. Always good for a yuk. I mean, who would do that? It’s got to be down to the lawyers, the frickin’ lawyers must be the ones who have them all spooked into climbing to this level of absurdity.

It is pretty funny, except actually it isn’t, when you think about it. I’m taken aback sometimes, when it hits me that those seemingly silly warnings aren’t silly, no, not even just a little bit. See, I’m one of those lawyers. I was never a litigator, but I played one in school, and you don’t have to spend too much time in torts class before you realize that no matter what it is, there’s some moron out there who’ll grab it backwards and do precisely the most bone-headed, yet still somehow conceivable, thing possible with it. Always. No matter how dangerous or obviously inappropriate. Manufacturers know this – they probably find it hard to believe, but they know it for a brute fact. So, shaking their heads, they plead with you to stop.

For example, this fell out of a bottle of vitamin pills today and rolled around on my bathroom floor (thus prompting this post):

It fits right in your mouth!

Really dumb, right? Yes, but not for the reason you think – it’s dumb because it doesn’t also have a label saying “Warning – item may create trip hazard if left rolling on floor“. Why do you think they went to the time and expense of pasting an emphatic prohibition on this small plastic thing full of silica, there to soak up ambient moisture that might otherwise melt the pills together? Do you suppose nobody would ever spot one of these little plastic drums, an obvious outlier sitting there amidst the vitamins, and decide to swallow it? Why – because it’s quite clearly not a pill, but something plastic and indigestible, with sharp edges to boot? Oh get real. I bet it happens a thousand times a year, warning label and all. Oh, look! A special one! Right in the mouth. Gulp

Do you really believe that nobody ever grabbed one of these things and shoved the business end right into his eustachian tube? Nah. You know they did, and still do. Probably ninety times a year, world-wide. I can just hear the idiots: Hey, I put a cotton swab on the end, man, shoulda been OK.

How about this:

I actually know someone who did this, not sayin’ who.* Honest. This person, the recipient of a good post-secondary education and a qualified, practising lawyer to boot, tried to iron a pair of jeans while wearing them. I hear it hurt like hell.

P.T. Barnum is supposed to have said that nobody ever lost a dime by underestimating the intelligence of the American people. Well, no manufacturer was ever litigated into bankruptcy who took precautions born of the absolute conviction that:

  1. Yes, somebody out there will eat that packet of dessicant silica gel.
  2. As soon as he does (and it will be a “he”), a lawyer is going to sue somebody’s ass off to the tune of 50 million bucks.
  3. The jury will award that, and add another fifty million in punitive damages.
  4. It will cost them 5 million in legal bills to get the jury award knocked down to $227.50 on appeal.

The lawsuit will fail at the outset, though, if you warned the dummies good and clear, so if you’re going to throw a product out there, no matter how innocuous, you’d best be protecting yourself. I bet the big outfits like GE and Sony have whole teams of testers who brainstorm all the stupid, deadly things a hypothetical dimbulb could think of doing with any new doodad they develop. That just has to be part of the process.

People. I ask you.

They’re out there all around you, on the streets, in the food courts, behind the desk just across the hall, at the wheel of the car sitting next to you at the stop light, maybe even in your own home, everywhere. Yes, they will lay their aluminum extension ladders agains the power lines. They will stick their hands into the maws of their operating snowblowers to clear out obstructions. They’ll mow their own toes off. They’ll bathe their Pomeranians and then chuck ’em into their microwaves for rapid drying, and while waiting, they’ll pop their oft-used rectal thermometers straight into their mouths. If it’s red hot, they’ll grab it and wave it around, supposing they don’t try it out as a suppository. If it’s blue, viscous, and smells like ammonia laced with turpentine, they’ll mix it with Diet Coke and drink it. They’ll try to light their BBQs with high octane unleaded. If the power goes out mid-winter, they’ll haul those BBQs right into their living rooms and light them up to keep warm.

These are the same folks who’ll see an odd looking mushroom in the woods and think what the hell, let’s see how it tastes. The ones eager to drive a Skidoo out onto that big, inviting, smooth patch of snow that has the ring of trees all around it. It’s a big complicated world full of hazards, and you can’t put a warning label on everything; but if you make it yourself, you can, and you’d better. Tragedy is only ever one dummy away.

We all knew the type, growing up, because they were in the news every summer. The sea got them, usually at Peggy’s Cove, a tourist attraction you’ll find along the Nova Scotia South Shore. It features enormous stretches of hardened magma, known as batholith, projecting out into the sea, atop of which are perched granite stones the size of small houses called erratics, deposited there by the glaciers that also gave the underlying surface its smooth, undulating shape. It’s altogether gorgeous, with a picturesque lighthouse standing on the crest for good measure. Tourists flock from around the globe to clamber all over the giant stones, and look out over the ocean. Here’s a couple of my own holiday snaps:

Right some friggin’ pretty eh? Note, though, that some of the rocks are a darker colour. That’s because they get wet, and they get wet, of course, because powerful ocean waves wash over them, not all the time, but enough to keep them damp all day. Any spot along the rock face will be hit intermittently by sections of wave that each contain, I dunno, probably 1400-1500 cubic metres of frigid, incompressible seawater. A cubic metre of water, believe it or not, weighs about one tonne, so when a big wave hits you, it’ll smash you like a giant mallet and pound you into a meaty mess against the implacable stone, before it washes back out, sucking your broken body along with it. Maybe they’ll find your ugly corpse, or maybe the sculpins will get it.

You can see just such a wave in the bottom snap. I know, it looks scary, but this time it’s OK, the folks standing there are farther from danger than they look. Owing to the foreshortening effect of the camera, their apparent proximity to the briny ocean toss is an optical illusion – theirs is – but every year, there’s somebody who doesn’t stay back. Some dumbass with a camera will walk right out onto the wet rocks, right next to the frothing surf, the better to get a dramatic shot, and then –

These signs don’t stop them:

They do, however, insulate the Province against lawsuits, and that’s really the only reason they exist, having been placed there, no doubt, in a spirit of abject fatalism by some worker who heaved a heavy, melancholy sigh as he finished his task.

I do admit that even I can’t see how anybody ever had a go at swallowing a coat hangar. So OK, maybe that warning is silly.

Wait – what have you got there? Don’t eat that.

The Sculpin, waiting just off shore with its bib on

*Rest assured, it wasn’t my brilliant wife, if that’s the wrong-headed conclusion your mind leapt to.

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