Don’t Store Explosives Next to Your Space Heater

Don't point space heaters at cans of gasoline five inches away.

Don’t point space heaters at cans of gasoline five inches away.

Well, it’s not quite that bad, but this warning in a package of instructions for a small space heater (maybe 10 by 12 inches)seems almost as obvious.  Not faulting the manufacturer. No doubt fires, probably a lot of them, have started because consumers unwisely placed heaters next to each of the listed flammable materials, probably including cans of gasoline.

U.S. products liability law does not require warnings against “obvious dangers.” But what’s obvious?  If people regularly suffer harm using a product in a dangerous way is it because the danger isn’t obvious or because product users frequently willfully or negligently overlook known dangers.

Manufacturers often get sued for failing to warn of obvious dangers. They don’t usually lose the lawsuits, but you can’t blame them for erring on the side of over-warning.  An unintended cost is the “dilution effect” of too many warnings. When instruction booklets are dominated by warnings, which they are, many of them repeated, it’s less likely consumers will read the warnings at all, or pay attention to the ones they really need to know.

But in this case, I’d agree the danger is both obvious and should be warned about because of the foreseeable grave risk.

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Andrew Jay McClurg is a law professor whose teaching and research interests include tort law, products liability, legal education, privacy law and firearms policy. He holds the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
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