Re: Liability and Morality

Subject: Re: Liability and Morality
From: Jay Alexander <jayalex -at- FREEDOMNET -dot- COM>
Date: Thu, 27 Jun 1996 16:12:19 -0700

taltom -at- IQUEST -dot- NET wrote:

> If MacDonald's had a technical writer who knew of the dangers and didn't at
> least make an effort to inform the consumer, is that technical writer
> morally responsible, even if legally shielded?
> I don't think so, Tim. :-) At least in this particular case. In simplest terms, the test of legal
responsibility is what is reasonable (however blurred that standard has become in our blame-the-other-guy
society). The moral standard? Who knows, but I would say it is the same. While I think I see your point, you
could drive yourself crazy trying to forsee all of the possible uses and misuses of a product you are
documenting. I would hate to think that a tech writer somewhere is feeling guilty about a McDonald's patron
spilling hot coffee on herself because the writer didn't push for a warning that the coffee was very hot.

Having spent the past 14 years in the insurance industry managing mostly commercial liability claims, I could
share with you a riduculous number of claims akin to the coffee and lawn mower examples cited here recently.
All of them included allegations of the failure to warn of this or that. One of my favorites involved a patron
of a certain fast food chain in Florida who purchased chili at the drive-through window and admitted to
attempting to eat the chili, with a spoon, while driving home. Not too surprisingly, the chili was rather hot,
and the woman dropped a blob of it on her bare thigh resulting in a second degree burn and scar. She alleged
that the restaurant must have "super-heated" the chili and that they should have warned her about how hot it
was. We defended the claim and the jury found the patron's arguments a bit unreasonable. I personally am
thankful that we are not subjected to "DANGER: Our chili is hot and should not be eaten while operating a motor
vehicle." signs at the drive-through...yet.

I am relatively new to the tech writing field, so I will defer to others as to how often one is expected, when
writing product documentation, to actually develop the warnings that seem to take up so much space in product
literature these days. I guess my point is that you probably should not be guided by the McDonald's cases of
the world since they are usually headline-grabbing flukes. I suggest that it is better to try to stick with the
reasonableness test for both legal and moral purposes and let the corporate risk managers and attorneys, who
presumably must okay such documentation anyway, decide whether or not the warnings are adequate.
Jay Alexander
Richmond, Virginia USA
E-mail: jayalex -at- freedomnet -dot- com

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