112: Lofty Ideals of the Law

Stella Case No. 112, Originally Published: 1 November 2006

In 1999 Donald Mathews, then 21, was a senior at Stockton State College in Pomona, N.J. To give students a bit of extra space in dorm rooms, the school installed a few hundred loft beds — the bed is six feet off the floor so students’ study desks and dressers can fit underneath. Mathews slept in one of the beds.

Awakened one day (it was noon) by his roommate, Mathews said he was “startled, and I — the next thing I knew, I was — I fell off the bed, I was on the floor.” He suffered a dislocated shoulder.

A loft bunk from University Loft Co. (now in Greenfield, Ind.) that’s probably like the one in the case report. (via their web site)

He sued the company that made his bed, University Loft Co., in Burlington County, N.J., arguing among other things the bed should have had guard rails or, failing that, that it should have had a warning label. Before trial, all the claims were thrown out — except the one calling for a warning label.

The case went to trial on that point, and the jury awarded him $179,001.

The company appealed the verdict. “There comes a point where you just can’t warn everybody about every danger,” said University Loft’s lawyer, Scott Griffith. “You’ve got to use your common sense.”

A state appeals court agreed, ruling 3-0 that “the obviousness of the danger is an absolute defense.” In other words, when an adult climbs six feet off the floor to get into bed, he should already know that he’s …well… six feet off the floor, and thus he obviously knew everything a warning label could have told him. But the court tackled a bigger issue while it was ruling:

“Warnings would lose their efficacy and meaning if they were placed on every instrument known to be dangerous, such as a knife, scissors, glass, bat, ball, bicycle or other product that poses a generally known risk of injury if misused, dropped, or fallen from,” wrote Appellate Division Judge Edwin Stern in the joint decision with Judges Lorraine Parker and Jane Grall. “The risks are so obvious here that we fail to see what a college student would or could have done differently while asleep to protect himself from falling, or what a warning could have advised in addition to the obvious.”

“We will be appealing this further,” grumped Mathews’ lawyer, Gary Piserchia.

Well, so much for common sense.

The Judges Are Right: there are so many warning labels around these days we’re starting to ignore them. Your computer keyboard “can” cause carpal tunnel. Your monitor “may” cause eye strain. Funny newsletters “could” cause you to blow coffee through your nose. When everything has a warning label, how will we know when we really need to pay attention to a warning of something serious? (Tip: a sign blaring “WARNING! Be Sure to Read All Warning Signs!” won’t help.)

Why are there warnings everywhere? Because manufacturers are trying to reduce their legal liability — they’re hoping not to be sued by people who don’t seem to have any remnant of common sense. If that loft bed had one, then all of Mathews’ claims would have been thrown out, and the case wouldn’t have gone to trial. Yeah, they did win, but how much lawyer time did it cost them to prevail in the case?

And it’s not just companies trying to cover their butts: governments are adding to the clutter too. The doors at every supermarket in California are plastered with “warnings” which supposedly inform consumers that certain foods have “chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer.” I remember rolling my eyes when the sign for saccharin went up, but since then it’s gotten worse: Now it’s mercury. What foods have added mercury in them? None. But seafood has it naturally — and darn it, people need to be WARNED!

It’s all mandated by Proposition 65, more formally known as California’s “Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986”. Since the ballot proposition was passed by voters, the list of chemicals requiring warning signs has ballooned to 750. [As of 25 February 2022: 1,016!] (Yet this “Safe Drinking Water” law exempts public water works from having to post warnings.)

Efforts to reduce the sign requirements to only cover things people really need to know about have been blocked. The result: no one really sees them anymore — not the goofy ones, and not the important ones.

But don’t think it’s just those wacky Californians. The situation nationwide has gotten so ridiculous that, just like I have plenty of dumb lawsuits to report on, others have plenty of dumb warning labels to hold up for ridicule. Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch has a “Wacky Warning Labels” competition each year for the dumbest warning labels.

Some of the ones that have not actually won include a pan that warns, “Ovenware will get hot when used in oven.”, a cocktail napkin with an arty map on it that cautions, “Not to be used for navigation.”, and a kitchen knife with the label, “Never try to catch a falling knife.” (Or your falling fingers if you do, eh?) With those losers, imagine the ones that actually win.

Sources

Case Status

As reported, Award made, Appeal made, suit tossed out.

My 2022 Thoughts on the Case

Common sense: what a concept!

Letters

No letters from 2006 on the previous case.

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27 Comments on “112: Lofty Ideals of the Law

    • Many do, but many people like to sit on the sides of their bunk bed. A safety bar would then pose a safety risk.

      Reply
      • When I was a child I had a bunk bed with a removable bar. It sat in slots in the head and foot of the bed. Easy to remove, but enough to prevent accidentally rolling out of bed.

        Reply
    • Crazy warning labels. And mainly in America where common sense des not seem to prevail.

      However the idiotic sense to sue over every little idiotic thing seems to prevail BIG TIME.

      Ok so overseas you also have idiots who try take advantage but most of these idiotic events seem to centre in America.

      Home of the Karens, Kens, Chads, HOAs, entitled people etc.

      All I can say is TG That it seems important and mandatory to have close circuit tv’s installed everywhere to unsuccessfully stop these entitled people from ruining everyone else’s lives.

      Reply
  1. I’ve noticed some instruction manuals now group all the Caution: Warning: b.s. at the front of the manual. I like that — easy to ignore, it doesn’t block the information you really want to see.

    Reply
  2. I want a warning label that your hilarious posts ‘can’ make hot chocolate shoot through my nose, Randy!!!

    “The risks are so obvious here that we fail to see what any reader would or could have done differently to protect him/herself, or what a warning could have advised in addition to the obvious.” -rc

    Reply
  3. I think the beds should have a rail, but perhaps its mainly the college’s fault? Didn’t they anticipate people would fall out?? Its not like the incoming students were given a choice, they were assigned these rooms and these beds. There are certainly beds just like these WITH a rail, why didn’t they purchase them??

    I understand why its not the bed manufacturer’s fault, but I don’t understand why its not partially the college’s fault. Also, that much money for a dislocated shoulder? Don’t you just pop those back in and you are okay?

    Pretty much all injuries have lasting effects. That said, if as the judge says, “The risks are so obvious here that we fail to see what a college student would or could have done differently while asleep to protect himself from falling, or what a warning could have advised in addition to the obvious” (and he’s right), then why is there then some extra fault that the college should be on the hook for? -rc

    Reply
    • I understand all that, but where else would the student sleep? He didn’t bring the bed with him. I am surprised there weren’t more incidents of falling from these beds.

      I guess they all saw, and accounted for, the obvious risk. -rc

      Reply
      • “I guess they all saw, and accounted for, the obvious risk. -rc”

        You know that dream where you’re falling? I had that once. Then I woke up just as I fell from the top bunk to the floor. My parents bought a guard rail the next day.

        They accounted for what they did when they were ASLEEP, Randy? The warning label is a joke. The rail is just sanity. You’re focusing on the wrong issue. The guy could’ve broken his neck because the college was too cheap. If they still sold cars without seatbelts, I guess you’d blame the driver for flying through the windshield.

        See the comment posted just previous to yours from Ray, Colorado. -rc

        Reply
        • The occasional Doogie Howser aside (who would be smart enough to see the obvious), just how many children go to that college, Bill? Take plenty of time to think.

          Reply
        • I agree with you Bill. Leaving the student with no choices (Ex: bed on floor like normal, or a guard rail) makes it the school’s fault IMO. His only choice was to take the dorm room/bed, or go home….

          Reply
        • It is interesting that there hasn’t been a solution to the railing that won’t present a choking hazard and also prevent people from falling off the bed.

          I fell from a bunk bed while on a grade 6 field trip, there was no railing to prevent me from falling. My leg was quite sore and the teacher told me to walk it off. I did, for 4 days, until I finally went to the hospital and found out I had a fracture. I had it bandaged and sent home. 3 days later I was in the hospital with an IV cause I ended up with a bone infection and almost lost my leg.

          In Canada, the construction industry knows the real danger of falling from 6ft (2m) or higher. Anyone working at 6ft, or higher, needs to be have a form of fall protection. It is scary to imagine that a judge would deem it common sense to understand that a bunk bed at 6ft is a risk that an individual must assume, with no fall protection.

          Reply
    • “Also, that much money for a dislocated shoulder?”

      Don’t these kind of cases almost always include pain and suffering as well as punitive damages?

      They try for it, at least. -rc

      Reply
  4. Sign on a display in the produce section of a Grocery store:
    “This Produce May Contain Peanuts”

    The produce displayed… Peanuts of course.

    Reply
  5. I agree fully about the warning label, disagree strongly regarding the side rail. Absolutely needed in an elevated bed six feet above the ground. Dislocated shoulder is bad, but broken neck is very possible. Riding a bike, the rider might fall. Wearing a helmet along with wrist, elbow and knee guards prevents serious injuries.

    Reply
    • Yes, that’s my point. I can’t see how the college didn’t anticipate this problem. I would agree its his own doing if he brought the bed with him. But the college assigned this to him.

      Reply
  6. The California thing has been a bit of a joke for my husband and me for years. When we were dating I got a storage unit and bought a lock for it and the lock had one of those disclaimer stickers about having chemicals known to cause cancer in the state of California. We thought it was silly, like only in California? In Missouri we were fine? It’s become a running gag, he inserted it in a gift he got for me as a joke (this video game has been known to cause insanity in the state of California kind of thing).

    You are absolutely right though. Most people don’t take those warnings seriously. It’s over the top.

    Reply
  7. That lack of railings was my first thought upon seeing that image – literally “what idiot designed that?!”

    Bets on whether a student modifying one to add railings would get into trouble for damaging university property?

    Reply
  8. These nanny warning labels may have a use. Imagine if all people running for elected office had to have warning labels tattooed on their face to the effect of “My campaign promises, even if they are enacted, are likely to have unforeseen negative consequences. Many campaign promises are not implemented by elected officials.” Mandate that the warning is also displayed in the chiron (sp) when they are on TV for better safety and readability.

    Sounds reasonable to me. -rc

    Reply
  9. When we arrived in the USA a decade or so ago, the central heating appliance was covered in warning labels. But NO instructions. Nada. zilch. nothing….

    Having arrived at about 2am, we had to sleep in an ice cold home, until we could get hold of the estate agent to switch it on.

    Reply
  10. I love the warning on my jar of deluxe mixed nuts:

    Ingredients: Cashews, Almonds, Pistachios, Hazelnuts, Pecans. (in bold) Contains These Allergens: Cashews, Almonds, Pistachios, Hazelnuts, Pecans.

    As for the bed though, I agree on no warning label, but it absolutely should have a safety railing. If I were assigned to such a bed, I would refuse to sleep in it until given a railing or a lower bed. I’d buy an air mattress to put on the floor and sleep on it before I’d climb into that death trap, because I roll over in my sleep and I’d be afraid I’d roll out of bed while asleep. I *have* rolled out of my regular bed, which is about 20 inches off the ground, in my sleep a couple of times, so it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.

    However, on a lawsuit for lack of a railing, I wonder who should be held responsible for the fall: the manufacturer for designing it without a railing, or the school for giving students no other choice? Or both?

    Reply
  11. Safety bars that are securely fastened to the bed constitute a choking hazard for small children. Lawsuits have resulted.

    How did humanity survive for centuries? Why haven’t we all been killed off by bunk beds of various design?

    A good reminder of competing liability threats. -rc

    Reply
  12. I can’t prove it, but I strongly suspect the Prop 65 warnings were pushed through the state legislature to help out Big Sign. Can you imagine how much money the sign makers have made off that stupid law since 1986?

    Good theory. -rc

    Reply
  13. As a new dorm resident, we had my roommate’s engineering boyfriend build us lofts, since the school didn’t supply them. I insisted on having a railing on mine, since I anticipated this very problem. The first morning I woke up, I sat straight up and almost knocked myself out, since the ceiling clearance was about 2 feet. I’d never done that before, and have never done it since. You can’t warn everybody about everything. And seriously, how many people roll out of bed, seriously?

    Reply

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