Motorola Sued Over Hearing Loss Allegedly Caused by Bluetooth Headsets

Yesterday I got an e-mail from one David Fish, an attorney at The Collins Law Firm in Naperville, IL, alerting me to a new lawsuit against Motorola for allegedly manufacturing Bluetooth headsets that endanger the hearing of users.

Fish, who specializes in business, securities and tort litigation, described this lawsuit as “a very significant case---and if the facts turn out to true, a very important case.”

Curious, I decided to check it out. In an Oct. 18 post on his blog, Fish explained that the lawsuit (Alpert v. Motorola, et al, 06-cv-5586)—brought by defense firm Segal McCambridge Singer & Mahoneywas filed in Federal Court in Chicago, and alleges that Motorola’s Bluetooth headsets can cause hearing loss.

“The complaint claims that exposure to sounds emitted from the headsets, even for time periods as short as a few minutes, can cause serious and permanent hearing loss,” Fish wrote.

More specifically, the lawsuit brings two main complaints:

  • That the headsets sold do not come with sufficient warnings regarding the potential for hearing loss

  • That the headsets include controls letting users set the volume to levels exceeding 85 decibels

This lawsuit raises some important questions about personal responsibility, and to what extent companies should be held responsible for the potential uses consumers may put their products to. It’s also hardly the first time this topic has come up.

For example, last February a Louisiana man named John Kiel filed a suit against Apple in U.S. District Court in San Jose, CA, claiming that the company did not provide adequate warning labels on its iPod music players about the potential for hearing loss.

More specifically, Kiel said that iPods “can produce sounds of more than 115 decibels, a volume that can damage the hearing of a person exposed to the sound for more than 28 seconds per day,” an AP report at the time noted.

Apparently responding to the lawsuit, in March Apple introduced a software update giving users more control over volume levels on iPods. The update let users “set how loud their digital music players can go,” AP reported. The software also allowed parents to “impose a maximum volume on their child's iPod and lock it with a code.”

My primary inclination is to say, “What’s the world coming to?” in response to these lawsuits. After all, don’t we all know that listening to music too loud—whether on an MP3 player or at a concert—can damage our hearing? Isn’t that just common sense?

Many products intended for entertainment or convenience can be put to dangerous use if common sense isn’t used. That doesn’t mean companies should have to slap a warning label on every product. And if they did, it seems to me that we’d all just get warning overload and start ignoring the labels.

In a somewhat tongue-in-cheek article on BBC News, Cornell University professor Kaushik Basu seems to agree with the “enough already” sentiment regarding warning labels.

In the article, Basu cites two examples of warning labels he feels are over-the-top: a notice on the ink cartridges for his printer that warns not to drink the ink, and a notice on a package of Cool Mint Listerine breath-freshening strips warning that the carrying case may cause a choking hazard.

Basu wonder whether such warning labels serve much purpose beyond getting people worried about all the dangers that life poses.

“If, every time you got into a car, you had to hear a recitation of the risks of driving and of how, in an accident, the airbags will open up and how you should respond to such an eventuality (for instance, not have your knitting needle pointing towards the airbags), we would have much less traffic and many more hypertension patients,” he writes.

It is true that studies have shown listening to music on MP3 players can lead to hearing loss. But the question remains whether the responsibility to prevent hearing damage lies with manufacturers or consumers.

Perhaps, if the lawsuit against Motorola goes forward, consumers will end up safer. Or maybe we’ll just have one more warning label to read.

What do you think?


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