Do we need a ‘Stupid User Law’ to save manufacturing?

It seems that some people in this country want manufacturing jobs—they just don’t want manufacturing. Over the past couple of decades there have been numerous lawsuits against product manufacturers (many of them plastic product manufacturers) for products that have caused injury or even death to users. The Consumer Product Safety Commission is the watchdog for products that are inherently defective in design or manufacture, and in most cases companies issue voluntary product recalls when alerted to a problem.
   
That’s what makes the case of Blitz USA, a blowmolder of the ubiquitous red gasoline cans, all the more puzzling. On July 31, the company closed its doors and laid off all 117 employees at its Miami, OK plant—driven out of business by a sudden onslaught of lawsuits brought by an attorney firm after the company settled two suits out of court in multimillion-dollar payouts.

According to Fox23.com, the local news channel’s online media venue, Blitz USA was the “nation’s largest manufacturer of gasoline cans,” molding 15 million of them annually. The company reportedly had annual revenues of $60 million. At the time of its closing, Blitz USA had 42 lawsuits against it, more than it had in the company’s 46 years in business.

The lawsuits arose over people being burned while pouring gasoline onto a fire, according to various reports. Now I don’t know about you, but knowing the volatility of gasoline and the potential for explosions, pouring gasoline on a fire doesn’t seem like the smartest idea in the world. But then there are many people who aren’t too bright, and need to be protected from themselves, or encouraged by the law to either make better decisions or face fines for being stupid.

In Arizona, we have what is called the “Stupid Motorist Law,” which came about because people were driving around barricades put up to warn motorists of severe flooding in washes and low-lying areas through which streets and roads often run. During the monsoon season, we get sudden downpours of rain that can dump a lot of water in a short period of time and in the desert, this water doesn’t soak into the soil. It runs—very fast—into the lowest points, the washes. (Don’t ask me what the highway engineers were thinking when they decided to put roads through washes and low-lying areas in the desert! That’s another story.)

The Stupid Motorist Law says if you choose to be a Stupid Motorist and drive your vehicle around the barricades put in place for your own protection, and the police and fire departments have to come and rescue your sorry a** from the flood waters at great risk of bodily harm to themselves, you get to pay the bill for your rescue! It’s that simple. Being stupid will cost you!

A Wall Street Journal editorial called the Blitz USA story a “case study in modern robbery,” and aptly notes that with the demise of the company “the rest of the plastic-can industry can’t be far behind, so long as there’s any cash flow available.” [July 23, 2012, pg. A12, The Tort Bar Burns On]
When we think about reshoring product manufacturing to the U.S., we often think about the benefits such as the good jobs that “Made in the USA” brings us. However, many manufacturers realize the downsides of that as well.

One of those is the “tort bar” that companies have to contend with. Not that we’re letting companies off the hook to make products that are designed and manufactured to be safe to use. But companies generally don’t make products to intentionally kill off their customers. That’s not a great business model. It’s just that sometimes these same customers aren’t real smart when comes to what they do with the products. All the warning labels in the world aren’t going to save some people from themselves.

The upshot of this most recent assault against manufacturing—and plastics—is that most of our gasoline cans will probably now come from China. While there have been many product recalls of products made in China for various reasons such as lead paint or other toxins in plastic toys, or plastic high-chairs and other baby products made from questionable materials, the fact is it’s much more difficult—nearly impossible—for the U.S. tort system to get redress for clients from Chinese manufacturers.

If we really want good manufacturing jobs in this country, we have to really want manufacturing! That means creating a manufacturing-friendly business climate which uses common sense when it comes to things like product safety and lawsuits.

Perhaps what we need in this country is a “Stupid User Law.” It could be similar to Arizona’s “Stupid Motorist Law.” If you hurt yourself using a product in a manner it was not meant to be used, you pay. We can protect people from a lot of things—even from other people—but we can’t protect people from themselves. I’ll bet those 117 people who just lost their jobs at Blitz USA would vote for that!

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