You'll be hearing from my lawyers (please see insert)

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The Independent Online
THE OTHER day I was wondering in this space what was the correct name for the things that fall out of magazines - you know, all those charity appeals and subscription offers and small innovative magazines and carwash vouchers and God knows what else. I had almost forgotten all about it, when I got the following letter, which seems well worth reprinting in toto.

Dear Sir,

You might be interested to know that I once spent a year working for a firm which produced those things that fall out of the middle of magazines when you buy them. I was in fact employed by the legal department of MagFall, which was the name of the company. Indeed, 'magfall' was the name we always gave to the magazine inserts we produced, though I don't think anyone else ever called it that.

The reason we had a legal department was to do with the unusual nature of the product. Unusual, in that the customer never knew he was buying it. When a reader buys his magazine he doesn't know that anything extra is lurking inside it. He certainly never asks for it. In all our research we never came across a customer who had gone up to the counter of a newsagent and said: 'I'd like a magazine with lots of free offers, charity appeals and subscription forms in the middle, please.' All a customer ever does is ask for a magazine. The inserts come uninvited.

Now, this puts a firm like MagFall in an odd legal position. If a customer has a complaint about a Magfall magazine insert, or suffers damage or embarrassment as a result of receiving the insert, what is the legal position? Is a company responsible for the effects of something it has given away to somebody who doesn't know he is getting it?

What effects, you may ask. I'll tell you. Or rather, I'll ask you a question. What normally happens when you buy a magazine containing lots of inserts? They fall out. What happens then? You try to catch them. If you can't catch them, you pick them up. And when you get thousands of people buying magazines, dropping the inserts, then trying to catch them or bending to pick them up, you'll get a few in each thousand who pull a muscle or bang their head on something when they bend over. And of them, a few will get serious injuries. And sue.

We got a steady, if slow, flow of cases in which we were sued by people who had suffered varying amounts of damage through Magazine Insert Retrieval Syndrome, as it's called. People who had bent over in some crowded railway station, for instance, to pick up the damned inserts falling out of their magazine and had lost their footing, gone rolling over and been trampled by the crowd rushing for the 5.13 back to Billericay or whatever. We once got sued by an African who had opened a magazine while sitting in his train and had got a great shock when all this stuff fell out of it, because he thought it was a snake. At least, that's what he claimed in court.

Now, the great point at issue in all this was whether we were liable or not. We claimed not, of course, on the grounds that a customer who buys a product buys everything that comes with it, and that we were doing no more than a toy manufacturer who puts instructions in his toy, or a shirt manufacturer who stuffs his shirts with pins.

(Indeed, we consulted several shirt companies and it appears that they are being sued the whole time by people who have nearly been stabbed to death by their pins, but their defence - that pins are a traditional part of shirt wrapping and should be adequately known to the customer for him to take his own precautions - is always accepted. We were much heartened by this.)

Our big test case came when we were sued by a man who said he had bought a magazine full of our inserts, which had blown away in the wind. Automatically he had chased them, but they had blown out into the main road. Before he could stop himself, he had run out far enough to cause a car to swerve, which had caused a crash, which had begun a multiple accident.

We honestly thought that we were done for. The man seemed to have a first-class case for massive damages. But our barrister came up with a novel line of defence. He claimed that, far from being liable, we . . .

(And there, I am afraid, the letter ends. My correspondent must have forgotten to insert the final page of his letter in the envelope.)