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Have You Looked at Your Product Manual Lately?

April 4, 2016

Product manuals are routinely offered into evidence at product liability trials. Manuals may be introduced by the plaintiff to demonstrate the inadequacy of the warnings or instructions, or by the defense to establish that the accident could have been avoided if the product had been used as it was intended and the product warnings had been heeded. Manufacturers may take it for granted that their product manuals provide clear instructions and sufficient warnings. However, once the manufacturer issued in a products liability case, plaintiffs’ experts will eagerly expose any deficiencies that may exist.

A manual should be an asset rather than a liability in a lawsuit, and a well-written manual can also be an effective risk management tool. This is one reason manufacturers should make it a practice to review their manuals with a critical eye — not only prior to its initial publication but also periodically thereafter — to ensure the product’s warnings and instructions are being conveyed in a clear and organized fashion.

Manual Fundamentals

What are some central issues to look for when reviewing a manual?

  • Does the manual look professional? It is not uncommon for new, smaller manufacturers to develop a manual over time by simply adding new pages as required by new features, or piecing together the manual from disparate component part manufacturers’ literature. This can lead to a disorganized and confusing appearance.
  • Is it well-organized? Information should be easy to find, especially with respect to product hazards and safe operation instructions. A detailed index is a good idea, in addition to a table of contents.
  • Is there an introductory page that grabs the user’s attention? This page should include a warning that informs the reader not to use the product until he or she has read the manual fully and understands the information it contains.
  • Is a toll-free number provided so that users can call if they have questions about the product or information contained in the manual? References to the manufacturer’s website that provides additional information should be included, also.
  • Before operating instructions are provided, is there a section devoted exclusively to warnings and hazards associated with the product? While not technically essential, this is a good idea from a product safety (and product defense) perspective.
  • Are warnings accompanied by ANSI pictograms, as appropriate?
  • Are instructions clear and presented logically, as step-by-step procedures? Product features should be explained both in terms of function and purpose. Do not assume much sophistication or a high level of training on the part of the user.
  • Clear diagrams accompanying written instructions are often very helpful, and actual photographs of the product, with arrows or other visual indicators, if appropriate, are even better.
  • Most importantly, are there inconsistencies or ambiguities in the instructions or warnings? These can be difficult to spot for engineers or others too close the product design. It is good practice to have someone not involved with the product design review the instructions to determine if they are clear to the average user.

These subjects are only a starting point for a comprehensive manual review but are essential issues to address.

New Model Review

When a new version of the product is introduced, the manual should be reviewed and revised as appropriate. This means more than simply replacing the model name (Widget 2.0 with Widget 2.1) unless the changes to the product do not affect the product’s operation or features. Otherwise, a complete review of the manual should be made to account for any differences in operation that may affect product safety.

Likewise, if a new product line is introduced, it is essential to make sure the new manual does not simply copy and paste from the company’s other product manuals without making sure the design differences in the new product are accounted for in the new manual. Manufacturers should give as much attention to the new manual as they did to writing the original product manual in order to ensure that there are no references to older features that do not exist on the new product or warnings that do not make sense in light of new design.

Competitors as a Resource

Finally, it is often helpful to review competitors’ manuals to determine how your manual stacks up. If competitors are including different warnings or more detailed instructions, that does not necessarily mean your manual is deficient, but it should encourage a more detailed analysis of the warnings at issue.

A Strong Defensive Weapon

Jurors are much more favorably inclined towards a manufacturer defendant when they feel that the manufacturer is responsible and cares about the safety of the customer or user. Because the manufacturer is perceived as having the greatest knowledge of the product’s use and its hazards, it is imperative that the manufacturer be able to effectively demonstrate that it has gone to great lengths to clearly communicate – through the product manual – the proper use of the product and the risks associated with the use of the product. Think of a manual review like routine maintenance for your home or vehicle: Take care of it before it becomes a problem.