Warning: Toasters Are Dangerous

toaster warningsLike any heat-generating electrical device, toasters can be very dangerous.

Here’s the main warning page from a set of instructions for a new toaster (click pic to expand).

Most of these are good warnings, even if they sound silly. For example, “do not insert fingers … into slots when toaster is plugged in” sounds obvious, but how many toaster-users among us could swear under oath we haven’t fished stuff out of a plugged-in toaster with bare hands? One of the most common types of toaster injuries is burned fingers from trying to get Pop-Tarts out.

And on reading “Do not operate or place the toaster  … in a heated oven or microwave oven,” your first reaction might be to laugh, but this kind of warning is there because real live, or at least formerly so, consumers have engaged in exactly that activity.

So these are mostly good warnings, but two quibbles applicable to many product warnings:

–First, it’s annoying when product warnings direct consumers to do things the manufacturer knows 100 percent they are not going to do, such as “Unplug toaster from outlet when not in use.” Maybe I lead an overly risky life, but I do not unplug all electrical products (many of which include the same warning) between usage. Repeated plugging and unplugging strikes me as being potentially even more dangerous when it comes to toasters because water is frequently running nearby and fingers may be wet or slippery from various cooking ingredients.

–Second, it would be great if we could ditch the generic warnings that clearly do not apply to the particular product. They simply dilute the impact of (and already small likelihood consumers will actually read) the important warnings. Example here: “Do not use attachments that are not recommended by the manufacturer.” I have no doubt consumers misuse products in varied and imaginative ways, but I can’t picture what kinds of attachments they would use for a toaster.

Post script: An insurance defense lawyer-turned-judge friend wrote in response to this post:

Gulp.  Will you still be my friend if I confess that I  actually DO unplug the toaster between uses?  It’s the old insurance defense lawyer in me.  I don’t walk over grates in the sidewalk or manhole covers in the street.  I don’t talk on the phone or shower when there is lightning outside.  I inanely tell loved ones departing in cars:  “Drive safely!”  (In response, my former husband once told me, “Good thing you said that.  Had you not, I would have driven like a maniac.”) In my defense, experts actually do advise unplugging small appliances like toasters.  Here’s one explanation why.

Two points. First, you can see what being immersed in tort law does to people’s psyches. We become very safe people. Second, I’m still not convinced. If electric appliances present a significant risk of physical harm to persons or property (other than harm to only the product) simply from being plugged in, I would argue that the failure to incorporate failsafe technology from electrical surges is a defective design.

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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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