As consumers, we place our trust in companies every day. We assume that because their livelihood depends on our liveliness they will have our best interests at heart. While this is normally a safe assumption, there are those occasions where companies are forced to weigh the benefit of additional profits against the cost of potential damages.
These cases sometimes lead to our trust being betrayed.
The most obvious example, of course, lies in the centuries-old tobacco industry. The first tobacco in America was grown in 1609 by John Rolfe in Jamestown, Virginia. Since that time, it has evolved into a cornerstone of the American economy. When the healthiness of smoking came into question in the 1900s, cigarette companies scrambled to promote the various “health benefits” of the habit, even going so far as to hire dentists and doctors to promote their brands. Ads boldly claimed, “More Doctors Smoke Camels Than Any Other Cigarette” and “As your Dentist, I would recommend Viceroys.”
Nowadays, we know the dangers of tobacco products, however, because of decades of effective — occasionally manipulative — marketing, the habit lingers. As of 2012, nearly 20 percent of Americans smoke. In a tragic war of attrition, the consumer’s health is pitted against corporate profits in a clear battle whose banner reads, “profit is paramount.”
Historically, though, most examples are more subtle or, at the very least, less widespread. Often, companies are suddenly thrust into a position where a snap decision can impact the lives of thousands of their clients. With such far-reaching consequences arising out of almost instinctual responses, it’s no surprise that — sometimes — bad judgment sneaks itself into the process.
So, from a lethal rain of steel darts designed to liven up the neighborhood barbecue to losing 30 pounds to look good at your funeral, here’s a list of five products that killed their users.
The story of lawn darts is, perhaps, the quintessential story of an ill-conceived product. It is, at the very least, the one that most people are familiar with.
Previously banned in the U.S., a challenge in the 1970s led to a compromise that put the oversized, needle-tipped darts back on store shelves. And for a good 17 years, everything was golden. Lawn sport enthusiasts — blissfully unaware of the dangers of throwing the equivalent of a fletched railroad spike thirty feet into the air — drank their beers, held their tournaments and passively aerated their backyards.
That all changed in April 1987 when Michelle Snow found herself on the declinate side of a lawn dart’s arc. The seven-year-old was killed and her father rallied to get lawn darts banned. Within a year, he had achieved his goal, though his efforts were no doubt aided by the stories of the 6,100 other people who had been injured by the darts since their reintroduction.
Monster Energy Drink
According to a Freedom of Information Request, The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has received reports of five deaths claimants believed to be due to Monster Energy drinks. The requests were filed after the 2011 death of 14-year-old Anais Fournier who died of “cardiac arrhythmia due to caffeine toxicity” after consuming two 24-ounce cans of the drink.
At 10 milligrams of caffeine per ounce, two 24-ounce cans would yield 480 milligrams of caffeine which — according to Caffeine Informer — could be enough produce mild to moderate symptoms of caffeine overdose. However, Fournier’s case was complicated by a pre-existing heart condition which may have contributed to her adverse reaction to the drink.
In Fournier’s case, the verdict is still out, but it’s not hard to believe that massive quantities of caffeine over a short period played some role in the teen’s death. However, culpability is another story altogether as it is equally hard to lay the blame on Monster for Fournier’s decision to consume their drink. In 2013, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg seemed to agree, saying, “[f]rankly, many of the reports, when examined with a real look at the science and the potential for a causal relationship, are not very compelling.”
The Ford Pinto, first introduced in 1971, has served as the butt of thousands of jokes and even inspired a Hollywood movie, Class Action, starring Gene Hackman. In the film, Hackman plays a civil rights lawyer who files a lawsuit against an automobile manufacturer whose station wagons have a tendency to violently explode if they are struck while turning left.
In the case of the Ford Pinto, the fiction is not too far from the truth. In 1977 it was alleged that — in certain cases — the Pinto’s design lent itself to violent explosions during rear-end collisions. Just like in the film, Ford was aware of the flaw but unwilling to initiate a redesign. A document dubbed the “Ford Pinto Memo” obtained by the magazine Mother Jones, indicated that Ford had weighed the cost of a recall versus its benefits and concluded that it would be less expensive to pay settlements for deaths, injuries and damages caused by the car.
Regardless of Ford’s initial analysis, after at least 54 deaths were attributed to the Pino’s design flaws, the company initiated a recall at the recommendation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Battlestar Galactica Missile Launcher
In 1978, Battlestar Galactica was all the rage. Debuting in September, the show’s $7 million pilot episode was — at the time — the most expensive in history. Clocking in at 148 minutes, the show’s first episode not only aired on television but was released theatrically. It enjoyed high Nielsen ratings, critical acclaim and, strangely, attracted the ire of Soviet newspapers.
And, of course, no epic science fiction tale would be complete without a fully-articulated, comprehensive line of toys.
Unfortunately, this is where the story of Battlestar Galactica takes a tragic voyage into those most umbrous corners of space. In 1978, the show’s toy line featured a spaceship capable of firing plastic missiles. If there’s one thing we’ve learned since 1978, it’s that children should not be trusted with objects that fit inside their mouths. On December 31 of that year, 4-year-old Robert Jeffrey Warren from Georgia articulated his last Cylon when one of the ship’s missiles became lodged in his throat.
By early 1979, the entire line of toys had been recalled and Warren’s parents filed suits against Mattel to the tune of $14 million.
At some point, you would think people would learn that there’s no magic pill to cure obesity but where there’s a yearning for something, there’s an earning in promising it. The Fen in Fen-Phen — fenfluramine — first went to market in the 1970s but didn’t take off until 1990s when it found its partner, phentermine. In combination, the two promised users fast, lasting weight loss.
Not long after, questions began to surface about the drug’s safety. An official at Wyreth — the drug’s manufacturer — noticed that fenfluramine’s labeling listed only four cases of pulmonary hypertension when over ten times that amount had been reported. Furthermore, in 1996, a paper from the Mayo Clinic posited an apparent link between fen-phen and mitral valve dysfunction. Less than a year later, multiple deaths and reports of valvular heart disease had been reported to the FDA.
After the reports went public, the lawsuits immediately followed. Over 50,000 product liability suits have been filed by victims and — as of this year — a $3.75 billion settlement was awarded to former users of the drug.