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Defective or dangerous products are the cause of thousands of injuries every year in the U.S. “Product liability law” is the set of legal rules concerning who is responsible for defective or dangerous products but they are different from ordinary injury law. This set of rules sometimes makes it easier for an injured person to recover damages.
Product liability refers to a manufacturer or seller being held liable for placing a defective product into the hands of a consumer. Responsibility for a product defect that causes injury lies with all sellers of the product who are in the distribution chain. In general terms, the law requires that a product meet the ordinary expectations of the consumer. When a product has an unexpected defect or danger, the product cannot be said to meet the ordinary expectations of the consumer.
There is no federal product liability law. Typically, product liability claims are based on state laws and brought under the theories of negligence, strict liability, or breach of warranty. In addition, a set of commercial statutes in each state, modeled on the Uniform Commercial Code, will contain warranty rules affecting product liability.
Product Defects: Responsible Parties
For product liability to arise, at some point the product must have been sold in the marketplace. Historically, a contractual relationship, known as “privity of contract,” had to exist between the person injured by a product and the supplier of the product in order for the injured person to recover. In most states today, however, that requirement no longer exists, and the injured person does not have to be the purchaser of the product in order to recover. Any person who foreseeably could have been injured by a defective product can recover for his or her injuries, as long as the product was sold to someone.
Liability for a product defect could rest with any party in the product’s chain of distribution, such as:
- The product manufacturer;
- A manufacturer of component parts;
- A party that assembles or installs the product;
- The wholesaler; and
- The retail store that sold the product to the consumer.
For strict liability to apply, the sale of a product must be made in the regular course of the supplier’s business. Thus, someone who sells a product at a garage sale would probably not be liable in a product liability action.
Types of Product Defects
Under any theory of liability, a plaintiff in a product liability case must prove that the product that caused injury was defective and that the defect made the product unreasonably dangerous. There are three types of defects that might cause injury and give rise to manufacturer or supplier liability:
- Design Defects – Present in a product from the beginning, even before it is manufactured, in that something in the design of the product is inherently unsafe.
- Manufacturing Defects – Those that occur in the course of a product’s manufacture or assembly.
- Marketing Defects – Flaws in the way a product is marketed, such as improper labeling, insufficient instructions, or inadequate safety warnings.
The doctrine, known as “res ipsa loquitur,” shifts the burden of proof in some product liability cases to the defendant(s). Translated, this Latin term means “the thing speaks for itself,” and indicates that the defect at issue would not exist unless someone was negligent. If the doctrine is successfully invoked, the plaintiff is no longer required to prove how the defendant was negligent; rather, the defendant is required to prove that it was not negligent.
The second rule that helps plaintiffs in product liability cases is that of strict liability. If strict liability applies, the plaintiff does not need to prove that a manufacturer was negligent, but only that the product was defective. By eliminating the issue of manufacturer fault, the concept of no-fault, or “strict” liability allows plaintiffs to recover where they otherwise might not.
Unavoidably Unsafe Products
By their nature, some products simply cannot be made safer without losing their usefulness. For example, an electric knife that is too dull to injure anyone would also be useless for its intended purpose. It is generally believed that, as to such products, users and consumers are the best equipped to minimize risk. Thus, while a product might not be deemed unreasonably dangerous, manufacturers and suppliers of unavoidably unsafe products must give proper warnings of the dangers and risks of their products so that consumers can make informed decisions regarding them.
Common Defenses to Product Liability Claims
A defense often raised in product liability cases is that the plaintiff has not sufficiently identified the supplier of the product that allegedly caused the injury. A plaintiff must be able to connect the product with the party(ies) responsible for manufacturing or supplying it. There is an exception to this rule, known as the “market share liability” exception, which applies in cases involving defective medications. Where a plaintiff cannot identify which of the pharmaceutical companies that supply a particular drug supplied the drug he/she took, each manufacturer will be held liable according to its percentage of sales in the area where the injury occurred.
Another defense a manufacturer might raise is that the plaintiff substantially altered the product after it left the manufacturer’s control, and this alteration caused the plaintiff’s injury. A related defense is that the plaintiff misused the product in an unforeseeable way and that his/her misuse of the product cause the injuries alleged.