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Product Liability Law

When people injure themselves with a defective product, they have a potential cause of action against the responsible party. If the victim can prove the other party was responsible for their injuries, then the at-fault party should compensate the victim. Product liability law is the area of law that covers cases involving damages caused by defective and dangerous products.

Generally, a product must meet the ordinary expectations of a consumer. This means two things. First, the product will be safe. Second, the product will perform the way it should. In other words, the product is fit for a particular purpose.

People can get hurt if a product fails to meet these two conditions. Depending on the facts of your case, your product liability lawyer may base your claim on the common law, contract law, tort law, or strict product liability.

This section includes several resources on design defects, manufacturing defects, defects in warning, labeling issues, and product safety in general. The links at the end of this article will take you to other Findlaw pages with more detailed information.

Types of Product Liability Defects

There are three types of product liability claims. They include the following:

  • Manufacturing defects: These cases involve products that would have been safe had they been appropriately manufactured.
  • Design defects: These lawsuits involve consumer goods whose product's design was unsafe. It would not matter how careful the manufacturer of a product was. There is no way to make the use of the product safe.
  • Marketing defects: In these claims, the manufacturer fails to provide adequate warnings, labels, or instructions regarding proper use.

Knowing the basics of your product liability claim will help you determine if you have a valid case.

How To Prove Fault in Product Liability Actions

Typically, a plaintiff in a personal injury lawsuit must prove negligence. They must demonstrate the following four things:

  • Standard of care: The defendant owed the victim a duty of care 
  • Breach: They breached this duty  
  • Damages: The victim suffered an injury
  • Causation: The defendant's breach was the proximate cause of the plaintiff's injuries

The plaintiff doesn't always have to prove negligence in a product liability lawsuit. Many of these cases involve strict liability. Under strict liability, the court may hold the product manufacturer, distributor, retailer, or wholesaler liable if the plaintiff proves their product is unsafe.

There are other types of product liability claims. Every product comes with an implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose. If the product doesn't work as advertised and you hurt yourself, you can sue the manufacturer and other third parties.

Injured parties can also sue under the breach of the implied warranty of merchantability. This warranty claims that the product is safe.

Finally, you can also pursue damages if you prove the defendant breached an express warranty. These cases are limited to situations where the two parties signed a written contract. These cases are also governed by the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC).

How Does Strict Liability Work in a Defective Product Case?

The plaintiff doesn't have to prove negligence in a strict liability case. All they have to prove is that the defendant manufactured, sold, or distributed the product and that the product was dangerous. The plaintiff must also prove that the defective or dangerous product caused their harm.

The Supreme Court of California reinforced the applicability of strict liability in 1963 in Greenman v. Yuba Power Products. The Supreme Court of California held that a plaintiff was not required to provide notice of the discovered defect to the manufacturer of a defective product.

The Court also held that, of the two parties, the defendant was in a better position to bear liability in these cases. After conducting a risk-utility analysis, the Court found that consumer safety was more important than protecting corporations.

The American Law Institute (ALI) also reinforced the idea of strict liability in product liability cases. In the Restatement (Second) of Torts Section 402a, the ALI states that manufacturers are strictly liable for any injuries caused by a dangerous or defective product they release into the market.

This means it may be easier to prove your case than you think.

How Long Do You Have To File Your Claim?

There are time limits for how quickly you must file your product liability lawsuit. Every state has laws that dictate when the filing deadline ends. These laws are called statutes of limitation. Most states allow victims two to three years to file a product liability claim.

The statute of limitations period starts on the date of your injury or when you discover the product defect was responsible for your damages, whichever is sooner.

If you don't file suit before the statute of limitations period expires, the judge will dismiss your case. The defendant will file a motion to dismiss, or the court clerk will notice on their own that you've missed the filing deadline.

Some states have other laws referred to as statutes of repose. These laws place an absolute limit on how long victims have to file suit. For example, imagine you bought a vehicle in June of 2020. You then got into a car accident in June of 2021. If the statute of limitations is two years, you'll have until June of 2023 to file suit.

Suppose you didn't realize that one of the component parts in your vehicle caused the crash until June of 2024. In that case, you have another two years to file a claim based on defective parts. However, a statute of repose puts a concrete filing deadline in place. This deadline is usually ten to twelve years from the date of purchase. You'll have, at most, ten or twelve years from June 2020. If it took you longer than that to realize that the car's defect caused your injuries, you would have no legal recourse.

Who Is Responsible?

Years ago, a plaintiff couldn't sue a product manufacturer unless they could show they had privity of contract. Privity of contract was the relationship created when two parties entered an agreement. Most jurisdictions today have abandoned this requirement.

It's not unusual to name multiple defendants in your product liability lawsuit. Usually, you will identify the product's manufacturer as a defendant in your complaint. However, you may also need to file suit against the following parties:

  • Retailer
  • Distributor
  • Wholesaler
  • Other members of the supply chain

Your lawyer will name anyone who may be responsible for your injuries. Any party that had a role in the sale of goods may be liable. It's essential that you include these defendants in your initial complaint. Otherwise, you may not be able to add them later.

Common Defenses in Product Liability Claims

Regardless of which party you sue, they will attempt to deny responsibility. Depending on the facts of your case, they may raise one of several defenses.

Some of the common defenses used in product liability lawsuits include the following:

  • The plaintiff did not use the product as instructed: It may impact your claim if you don't use it as you should.
  • The victim made substantial and material changes or alterations to the consumer product: The defendant may argue that you made changes to the item and that these changes created or increased the risk of harm.
  • Contributory negligence: This is a common defense raised in personal injury lawsuits. The defendant will argue that you were partially at fault for your injuries. Depending on where you live, this can significantly impact your claim. This article will address contributory negligence and partial fault in more detail below.
  • Something else caused your injuries: The defendant may argue that their product had nothing to do with your injuries. For example, suppose you are in a car accident and claim there was an automobile defect. The vehicle manufacturer may argue that you would've gotten into the crash regardless of the defect.

In all personal injury cases, the plaintiff has the burden of proof. However, if the defendant raises any of the above defenses, they must submit sufficient evidence to support their claim. Your product liability lawyer will challenge their claims with evidence.

What if You Were Partially at Fault?

It's not unusual for the defendant in a personal injury case to argue that the plaintiff was partially responsible for their injuries. The same thing happens in product liability actions. If the defendant can prove that you were partly at fault, one of two things will happen.

If you live in a state that follows the comparative fault rule, you may still be able to recover damages. However, the judge will reduce your damages by your percentage of fault.

For example, imagine you sue an automobile manufacturer for damages after your car accident. Your attorney has proof that the brakes on the car were defective. The manufacturer or other member of the chain of distribution claims that the faulty brakes had nothing to do with the crash. They submit evidence showing that you were speeding during the accident. The judge determined that you were 20% at fault for the crash. Therefore, the damages you can receive are reduced by 20%.

In states where the legislature continues to follow the pure comparative negligence rule, you can collect damages regardless of your percentage of fault. However, in states that follow a modified comparative negligence rule, you can only recover damages if you are less than 51% at fault.

There are also a handful of states that follow the common law principle of contributory negligence. This means you cannot collect damages in these states even if you're only 1% at fault. There are only four states that still follow this rule. They include the following:

  • Alabama
  • Maryland
  • North Carolina
  • Virginia

This rule also applies in Washington, D.C.

Settling Product Liability Claims

Many people don't realize that more than 95% of all personal injury lawsuits settle out of court. In most cases, it's in everybody's best interest to resolve the matter amicably. The judge will encourage you to settle, even if your case goes to trial.

There are several advantages to settling your case out of court, including:

  • It can take over a year or longer to go to trial
  • You don't run the risk of losing at trial and receiving nothing
  • It is a lot cheaper to settle than go to trial
  • You will likely receive a lump sum payment

Of course, your attorney isn't going to encourage you to accept a settlement that doesn't cover your out-of-pocket expenses. They'll negotiate with the defendant's insurance company and try to reach a fair settlement.

What Damages Can You Recover in a Product Liability Claim?

You may be entitled to damages if your product liability lawyer proves the defendant was liable for your injuries. Depending on the facts of your case, you may recover some or all of the following:

  • Medical bills
  • Future medical expenses
  • Lost wages
  • Lost future income
  • Property damage
  • Pain and suffering
  • Emotional distress
  • Punitive damages

Your attorney will demand damages for any other economic loss you suffered.

Keep in mind that judges rarely award punitive damages in these cases. The courts reserve these damages for cases where they want to punish the defendant for their especially reckless or malicious behavior.

How a Products Liability Attorney Can Help

An experienced products liability attorney will help determine if you have a valid claim. After reviewing your case, they'll also better understand its worth. They will help you file your initial insurance claim, and if need be, they'll file suit on your behalf.

If a defective product has injured you, you may have a claim for damages. Depending on the type of defect, your damages may be significant.

While you aren't required to retain a product liability attorney to handle your case, it may be in your best interest to do so. You can contact an attorney near you or consult Findlaw's attorney directory.

Learn About Product Liability Law

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