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By the early 1980s, Tylenol was a very successful brand of painkillers. Profits from selling Tylenol constituted a significant portion of Johnson & Johnson’s income (Stewart and Paine 157). In 1982, an incident happened that could ruin the brand forever. Several packages of Tylenol in Chicago were found to contain cyanide, a highly poisonous chemical substance. It is assumed that somebody had replaced some bottles of Tylenol with contaminated ones on the shelves of several pharmacies and stores (Bland 9). Seven people fell victim to the crime that was never solved afterwards. Johnson & Johnson had to take emergency measures to ensure safety of its customers and to save the brand—and, possibly, the entire company—from perishing due to the loss of customers’ trust.
Apart from extensive media coverage, the incident attracted a lot of academic attention from various spheres and perspectives. A heated debate about the case involved not only crisis management and business ethics theorists and practitioners but also law specialists. The legal aspect of the story is reflected in the concept of product service liability. The concept is about acknowledging that product manufacturers and service providers are responsible for their products and services to a certain degree. The degree, however, is subject to discussion. For example, it is recognized today that a car manufacturer cannot be held responsible for drunk drivers who may hurt themselves or others. Yet, there are more complicated cases. Should Johnson & Johnson have borne responsibility for the deaths of people who took poison while thinking that they were taking Tylenol? What are the responsibilities of the manufacturer under these circumstances? To address these questions, it is necessary to conduct data analysis and present the findings for legal discussion.
Johnson & Johnson learned about the poisonings from mass media. The company’s executives had an emergency meeting to decide on the strategy of further action. Two issues were on the agenda: how to ensure safety of people and how to save the product (Kobrak 764). It was concluded that the product would not be saved unless Johnson & Johnson demonstrated dedication to the safety of its customers. For that reason, all Tylenol across the country was withdrawn. It was explicitly communicated to the entire nation that no-one should be taking the painkiller until the end of the investigation. Johnson & Johnson was maintaining a constant connection with media to communicate everything about the investigation and the company’s actions in response to the crisis. Also, there was a telephone number that any American could call to ask questions about Tylenol.
From the perspective of product service liability, there is one particularly notable measure taken by the painkiller manufacturer. Within a short period after the incident, Johnson & Johnson developed and introduced new packaging for Tylenol. It was “triple safe,” as it included a sealed box and two seals on the bottle (Jarrell 7). Therefore, Tylenol became the first product in the over-the-counter drugs industry to come in tamper-resistant packaging.
Product service liability can be challenging due to several reasons. One of the reasons was mentioned above (see Introduction): customers or clients may misuse products or services provided to them and cause harm. For example, a company that produces kitchen knives might have sold one to a person who used it to stab someone. Another person who bought a knife from the same company might have accidentally cut off his or her finger. In these cases, the company cannot be accused of the harm because knives are obviously dangerous and require responsible use (Allee, Mayer, and Patryk 31). However, there are products and services with less pronounced risks. For example, McDonald’s was obliged to put warnings on their cups after a woman hurt herself with coffee that was too hot (Hartigan, Sava, and Ostas 349). The Tylenol case is different, but the principal question is the same: should Johnson & Johnson be deemed responsible to some extent for the poisonings?
On the one hand, it can be argued that the company is to be blamed for not ensuring a sufficient level of safety initially. The product was replaced on the shelves in a way that customers did not notice it and consumed contaminated capsules. On the other hand, there is a counterargument that Johnson & Johnson faced a new form of terrorism, from which the company or other companies were not protected. There had not been the need to develop triple safe packaging. After the case, however, customers became concerned about the content of medical products they were buying. The company had to guarantee that what came in the bottles of Tylenol was what the company had actually produced. And the company managed to carry it out successfully with the introduction of new safety measures.
As it can be observed from the Tylenol case, an important legal aspect of product service liability is communication. Unfortunately, there are many ways in which products can be misused or used for malicious purposes. Similarly, there are many ways in which products can cause unintentional or intentional harm. First of all, undesirable use and harm can be prevented by clearly communicating to the customers how products should not be used. The Tylenol case, however, is different. It was about crisis management and emergency communication. When the incident happened, the company sacrificed millions of dollars to withdraw the product from the market. It was successfully communicated to the customers that their safety came first. By doing this, Johnson & Johnson avoided legal claims and eventually got back the customers’ trust for the product. The company recognized its liability to protect customers from any malice of third parties using the product as a tool of terror. If the safety measures had not been taken, Johnson & Johnson might have been accused of irresponsibility. For example, if someone had bought contaminated Tylenol and had been hurt after Johnson and Johnson had learned about the poisonings, it would have been a failure of product service liability. However, the nationwide withdrawal prevented this negative scenario.
Besides being a classical example of successful crisis management, the Tylenol case also raises issues of ethics, corporate responsibility, and product service liability. The poisonings were arranged by criminals who were never found, and it would have been hard for the Tylenol manufacturers to prevent the crime because there had not been the recognition of the need for triple-safe packaging of over-the-counter drugs. The key element of the story is Johnson & Johnson’s response. The company was not trying to suppress the case that would damage the product’s reputation. Instead, the company opted for losing a lot of money but showing dedication to the safety of its customers. The response demonstrated proper product service liability.
Allee, John, Theodore Mayer, and Robb Patryk. Product Liability. Law Journal Press, 2015.
Bland, Michael. Communicating Out of a Crisis. Springer, 2016.
Hartigan, Rosemary, Monica Sava, and Daniel Ostas. “Critical Thinking and the McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case: A Pedagogical Note.” Southern Law Journal, vol. 24, no. 2, 2014, pp. 337-364.
Jarrell, Kristin. “Tylenol and Tamper-Resistant Packaging.” Journal of GXP Compliance, vol. 16, no. 4, 2012, pp. 6-10.
Kobrak, Christopher. “The Concept of Reputation in Business History.” Business History Review, vol. 87, no. 4, 2013, pp. 763-786.
Stewart, Karen, and Whiton Paine. “Johnson & Johnson: An Ethical Analysis of Broken Trust.” Journal of Academic and Business Ethics, vol. 5, no. 1, 2012, pp. 157-164.