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Defects in Design

Product liability cases involve plaintiffs who injure themselves while using a dangerous or defective product. There are three main types of product liability cases:

  • Manufacturing defect
  • Design defect
  • Marketing defect (lack of or inadequate warning labels)

Each type of product liability case has its own characteristics. Product liability lawsuits based on a design defect focus on the manufacturer's product design. Unlike manufacturing defect cases, which focus on errors made during the manufacturing process, design defect cases focus on the manufacturer's plans for producing the product. The product's design can be as crucial as its assemblage and manufacture.

A design defect occurs when an inherent flaw or error in a product's design renders it unreasonably dangerous. Such a defect affects all products of a particular type. In most cases, the manufacturer could have gone with a safer design but did not choose to make the product safer. In other instances, the company is not aware that a design defect exists.

This article will focus on design defects. It will explain what a design defect is and describe a consumer's expectations when buying a product on the open market. Finally, this article will discuss how your personal injury lawyer can prove that a design defect exists and caused your injuries.

Liability for a Defective Design

A company's liability for a design defect exists when a product poses a foreseeable risk when manufactured and used for its intended purposes. The courts often use a reasonableness test to determine what qualifies as a foreseeable risk. If other manufacturers anticipated the risk during the ordinary course of business, the risk may be foreseeable.

In many states, to prevail in a product liability claim the plaintiffs must show that the risk could have been reduced or avoided had the defendant adopted a reasonable alternative design that fit these criteria:

  • Feasible: The manufacturer could produce an alternative design
  • Economically viable: It would not be too expensive to make the product with the suggested modification(s)
  • Does not frustrate the product's intended purpose: The product would still perform the function for which the manufacturer created it

If you prove that this alternative design reduces the risk of injury, you may be able to recover damages. The courts and regulatory agencies want to keep dangerous products off the shelves. One way to do this is to encourage manufacturers to consider alternative designs when introducing new products.

Types of Product Defects

There are an infinite number of types of product defects. Some products have an inherently dangerous design. These are deemed unavoidably unsafe. For example, Pontiac produced the Fiero sports car from model years 1984 to 1988. The auto manufacturer initially marketed the Fiero as the second-safest automobile available, but a spate of engine fires and multiple injuries marred the car's reputation.

By 1987, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 20 Fiero automobiles were catching on fire each month. When NHTSA approached Pontiac about the number of complaints, the company said the problem was the connecting rods.

One internal memo suggested that at least 10% and up to 40% of the rods in the cars were defective. The problem was with the vehicle's design. The evidence seemed to show that Pontiac was aware of this problem when it first manufactured the car but did nothing to make the product safer. Insiders reported that the company resisted spending extra to perfect the design.

The inherent flaws mean no matter how careful Pontiac's manufacturing process was, the product was destined to be dangerous. This is a prime example of a design defect. It's also an example of what companies can be willing to do or not do to cut costs.

Other examples of design defects include:

  • Flammable clothing
  • Motor vehicles
  • Appliances that melt under high heat
  • Poorly designed safety guards on power tools
  • Toys that present choking hazards for small children
  • Top-heavy furniture
  • Products containing hazardous chemicals, such as weed killers

Alternative Designs and Cost-Benefit Analyses

In many defective design cases, the manufacturer could have designed a safer product. In some cases, if the manufacturer's actuary determines it's cheaper to settle potential lawsuits than redesign and fix the product, the company may choose this route.

Many tests for whether an alternative design is feasible revolve around economic viability. Companies often argue that changing to the new design would cost too much, but how much is too much?

To answer this question, courts have employed a cost-benefit analysis approach. They estimate the additional costs of the safer alternative design and weigh that against the estimated costs of the company not changing the design. These damages would include the following:

It's rare for a judge to award punitive damages in a product liability case. Your lawyer must prove the defendant acted intentionally, recklessly, or with wanton indifference to recover punitive damages.

How Do Product Liability Lawyers Prove a Design Defect Exists?

If you file a defective product lawsuit, the judge will likely conduct a risk-utility analysis to determine liability. The court will first identify the product's value despite its flawed design, then compare this value to the risk caused by the dangerous product.

If the benefit outweighs the risk, the judge may determine that the manufacturer is not liable. If, on the other hand, the risk far outweighs the benefits, the judge will likely rule in your favor.

Your personal injury attorney must prove that a design defect exists before they can discuss your damages. There are several ways they can do this, including the following:

Your attorney will also rely on reports showing how many other consumers were injured while using the defendant's product. This evidence can be beneficial, especially if the other victims suffered injuries similar to yours.

Consumer Expectations Test

Most courts still use the risk-utility test, but others apply strict liability and hold the manufacturer liable regardless of the costs and benefits. A few jurisdictions still use an earlier standard known as the consumer expectations test. The consumer expectations test was born out of tort law. This standard asks whether the danger posed by the product goes beyond the ordinary consumer's expectations.

The consumer expectations standard can be hard to apply consistently because consumer expectations can vary widely from person to person. Consequently, most jurisdictions have adopted the alternative design test. It offers more objective criteria.

To learn more about product liability suits, see FindLaw's articles about defects in manufacturing or defects in warnings.

Have a Design Defect Claim? An Attorney Can Help

Design defects can lead to serious, debilitating injuries. If you or a loved one was harmed due to the use of the product, you may have a cause of action against the company responsible for the defective design. If your family member died due to the design defect, you may be able to sue for wrongful death.

Product liability is a complex area of the law, so you'll want to consult with an experienced product liability attorney before moving forward.

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