If the Suit Fits

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I'm not a lawyer, and I've never made a formal or even a casual study of the law, but, that having been said, there are some lawsuits that I firmly believe deserve to be laughed out of court. In fact, when these sorts of suits are read for the first time in the courtroom, if the judges don't at least guffaw or, preferably, emit very deep, long, loud belly laughs immediately before issuing good swift kicks to propel the plaintiffs out onto the sidewalk, then there's something fundamentally wrong with our justice system, not to mention the human species. What I'm thinking about are people who sue someone after the most obvious outcomes of the plaintiffs' actions—actions they undertook of their own free will—did, in fact, occur.

The lawsuit that comes quickly to mind is the one filed by someone, a passenger in a car, who, back in 1992, ordered a coffee from a McDonald's drive-through and placed the cup between her knees. She then sued McDonald's for the burns she received when the coffee spilled on her. I'm sorry, but coffee is supposed to be very hot. In fact, coffee connoisseurs know that the hotter the water while brewing and the sooner it's served, the better the coffee.

If you want coffee that won't burn you when trying, and failing, to balance a cup between your knees while sitting in a car, a car that might occasionally hit a pothole or a speed bump or that may need to come to a sudden stop to avoid running over the people who have a tendency to walk through someplace like, oh, I don't know, maybe a McDonald's parking lot, then order iced coffee. (Full disclosure: In this case, the car was already stopped when the person lost control of the cup between her knees.) But if you're going to place a cup of hot coffee where it has no business being, then you should be prepared to accept the consequences of your actions. The courts disagreed with me. In 1994, a court awarded the plaintiff almost $3 million in compensatory and punitive damages, although that amount was later reduced.

Fast forward to today. On February 2, 2006, InformationWeek reported on a man in Louisiana who is suing Apple because, according to his claim, Apple, among other things, didn't issue adequate warnings that an iPod played at a high volume can cause hearing loss. Yes, so what? Spending your entire life standing right up against a full-blast speaker tower during heavy metal rock concerts can cause hearing loss too, but why the hell would you decide to do that? If you choose to do something that any reasonable person would recognize as being likely to cause a problem, then you should be willing to accept the consequences.

Let's review. You buy an iPod. You're fully aware that the primary way to listen to it is to insert "ear buds," which are miniature speakers, directly into your ears—not resting on top of them, not sitting on the other side of the room, but firmly implanted as close to your ear canal as you can get them. You do that—and that alone would seem to me to be an apparent aural danger—but your iPod lets you mitigate the risk by giving you control—notice the use of the word control, it is in your hands—of the volume. Nonetheless, you blast your music directly at your eardrums. And then you want to sue Apple for potential damage to your hearing? Whoa! My personal opinion is that, at that point, you've given up your moral right to sue anybody. You did this to yourself. Nobody tried to hide the fact that you were blaring music directly at your eardrums. Even if they did try to hide that fact, you'd hear the problem rather quickly. You made the choice yourself. Accept the consequences.

As I said, the lawsuit claims that Apple didn't issue sufficient warnings about the possible harmful effects of its product. Excuse me? It's not as if no one ever made the connection between hearing loss and long exposure to loud sounds. Your mother probably warned you about that when you were a teenager and you turned the volume on your stereo up as loud as it would go. If she didn't warn you about it, read the occasional newspaper; there have been several studies on the phenomenon. If you're going to stick ear buds into your ears, turn down the damn volume! There. You've been warned.

Manufacturers shouldn't have to caution you about anything that's obvious. After all, if they issued warnings about every possible harmful effect, no matter how obvious, from every conceivable use of their products, you'd spend most of your life reading the warning encyclopedias that manufacturers would have to give you. Well, at least then you wouldn't have time to use the product and hurt yourself with it.

Some things are just common sense and shouldn't require a specific notice. For example, if you turn one of your stovetop elements up as high as it will go, wait several minutes for it to reach its maximum temperature, and then stick your hand on it, I don't think you should be able to sue the company that made the stove just because they didn't warn you that this might not be the best of ideas.

Likewise, if you use a remote-controlled crane to lift a grand piano up high over your head and intentionally drop it, then, assuming you survive, you shouldn't be allowed to sue the piano maker for failing to warn you about the potential for cranial damage arising from such an action. Nor should your heirs be able to sue in the much more likely event of your death. The harmful consequences should have been recognized by any reasonable person without the need for a notice from the manufacturer.

Similarly, if you intentionally regularly pump loud music as close as possible to your eardrums, the potential negative effects should be equally evident. It's only my opinion, but I think that if you want to sue somebody, you should sue your parents for raising you to be such an idiot.

As a public service for consumers and for the benefit of manufacturers who might otherwise be sued, I offer these important health and safety warnings that, for some shameful reason unknown to me, rarely appear on product labels:

  • Printer toner is NOT to be used as a meal substitute unless you're really famished and suicidal.
  • If you clean your computer by taking it into the bath with you and lathering it up, ALWAYS unplug it first. Also, after thoroughly drying off your computer, throw it in the garbage because it probably won't work worth a damn anymore.
  • If you lose your computer's power cable, NEVER try to complete the connection by sticking the fingers of one hand into the wall socket and the fingers of the other hand into your computer's power jack and then having someone pour water over the connections and yourself.
  • NEVER use one hand to vigorously slam the lid of your laptop computer shut while your other hand is still resting on the keyboard.
  • The bottom of a laptop computer can become hot with use. DON'T try to compensate for this condition by working with your computer for extended periods inside a functioning, hermetically sealed deep freezer.
  • If your cell phone has a protruding, pointy antenna, DON'T use it to remove foreign objects from your eye.
  • Though they might be made to fit if forced, DON'T try to thread your iPod ear bud and the attached cord through your nasal passageways.
  • If you hone the rim of DVDs or CDs to a razor-sharp edge and use the disks as Frisbees, NEVER throw them at pets, small children, medium-sized children, large children, or adults, not even if they're politicians.
  • Computer use can cause blindness if you try to ram your head, face first, through the screen with your eyes open. ALWAYS wear eye protection if you feel you must do this.
  • Smoking can cause cancer. So, no matter how frustrated you become with your gadgets, DON'T throw them into a huge bonfire and inhale the smoke. Instead, don a gas mask before tossing them into the consuming flames.

You've been warned. You no longer have any reason to sue manufacturers if you use their products in any of the ways described above.

Joel Klebanoff is a consultant, a writer, and president of Klebanoff Associates, Inc., a Toronto, Canada-based marketing communications firm. He is also the author of BYTE-ing Satire, a compilation of a year's worth of his columns. Joel has 25 years experience working in IT, first as a programmer/analyst and then as a marketer. He holds a Bachelor of Science in computer science and an MBA, both from the University of Toronto. Contact Joel at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. He accepts no legal responsibility to readers or their heirs for any physical or mental pain or suffering caused by reading this article.