What Is Product Liability?
Thousands of people are harmed by defective or dangerous products every year. Product liability is the area of the law that governs this type of injury. The burden to recover damages under product liability law is lower than in other personal injury cases. This is because the plaintiff doesn't have to prove negligence.
Plaintiffs typically file product liability cases against a manufacturer or retailer for selling a dangerous or defective product to a consumer. All distribution chain parties can be liable in a product liability lawsuit. This is because manufacturers, retailers, and distributors must only market products that meet the ordinary expectations of the consumer.
The ordinary expectations of the consumer standard include two duties. Products should do the job manufacturers advertised them to do. They must also be safe. When a product has an unexpected defect or danger, the product fails to meet ordinary consumer expectations.
Is Product Liability Governed by Federal or State Law?
There is no federal product liability law. Product liability claims are typically 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.
If you're injured while using a dangerous or defective product, your personal injury lawyer will file suit in state court. This means you must file your claim before your jurisdiction's statute of limitations expires. Each state has its own statute of limitations. For example, you have three years to file a personal injury lawsuit in California.
What Constitutes a Product?
Most consumer goods are considered products for purposes of a product liability claim. This includes both household goods and things like medical devices and medications. Some of the more common goods involved in these product liability suits include:
- Children's toys
- Lawncare equipment
- Asbestos-based products
- Weed killer
If you purchase any item that injures you, there is a chance you have a cause of action under tort law. You must show that the dangerous or defective product was the proximate cause of your injuries.
You must demonstrate certain things to recover damages in a strict product liability case. For example, you must prove that you or another individual purchased the item from the defendant(s) in the marketplace.
Under product liability law, you cannot sue someone if you secured the dangerous item through a private sale. However, you don't have to be the one who bought the product to file suit. Any person who foreseeably could have been injured by a defective product can recover for their injuries. Years ago, you had to prove privity of contract to file suit. This is no longer a requirement.
Liability for a product defect could rest with any party in the product's chain of distribution, such as:
- The product manufacturer
- A component part manufacturer
- A party that assembles or installs the product
- Any entity involved in the manufacturing process
- The wholesaler
- The retailer
For strict liability to apply, the defendant must have sold the product in the regular course of business. Thus, someone who sells a product at a garage sale would probably not be liable in a product liability action. Product safety falls on the manufacturer and suppliers, not a private individual.
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 - Certain products are unsafe even if the manufacturer made the item correctly. A product design may include a dangerous condition that makes it inherently unsafe. An example of a product with a design defect would be a car that explodes when someone crashes into the area near the gas tank.
- Manufacturing Defects - Sometimes the product design is safe, but the company doesn't manufacture it correctly. If there is a problem with the product's manufacture or assembly, it is considered a manufacturing defect. A prime example of a manufacturing defect would be a child's toy where small pieces aren't secure and become a choking hazard.
- Marketing Defects - Flaws in how a product is marketed, such as improper labeling, insufficient instructions, misrepresentation, or lack of adequate warnings, can make a manufacturer liable. Marketing defects are often seen with dangerous drugs and defective medical devices. Manufacturers don't warn of harmful side effects, knowing it will hurt their product sales.
Proving Negligence in Product Liability
Typically, the plaintiff must show that the defendant is liable for their damages. However, it works differently in this area of law. A common law doctrine known as res ipsa loquitur shifts the burden of proof in some product liability cases to the defendant(s).
This Latin term means "the thing speaks for itself" and indicates that the defect would not exist unless someone was negligent. If your attorney successfully invokes this doctrine, you are no longer required to prove that the defendant was negligent; instead, the defendant must prove that it was not negligent.
The second rule that helps plaintiffs in product liability cases is 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 or posed a risk of harm.
By eliminating the issue of fault, the concept of no-fault, or strict liability, allows plaintiffs to recover where they otherwise might not. Of course, the plaintiff must still prove causation. They must demonstrate that the unsafe or defective product caused the risk of injury in the first place.
Unavoidably Unsafe Products
There are some products that, by their nature, cannot be made safer without losing their usefulness. For example, an electric knife that wasn't sharp enough to injure anyone would also be useless for its intended particular purpose.
Users and consumers are the best equipped to minimize risk when it comes to unavoidably unsafe products. Therefore, manufacturers and suppliers of unavoidably unsafe products must give proper warnings of the dangers and risks of their products. This way, consumers can make informed decisions regarding their use.
Types of Damages Recovered in Torts: Products Liability
If you win your product liability case, you will receive damages. Typically, attorneys resolve these cases through the defendant's liability insurance. Other times, you will have to go to trial. Either way, your attorney will demand some or all of the following types of damages:
- Reimbursement for medical bills
- Compensation for future medical care
- Property damage
- Pain and suffering
- Punitive damages
Technically, you can demand punitive damages in your product liability lawsuit. However, the courts rarely grant punitive damages in these cases. The purpose of punitive damages is to punish the defendant and deter them from engaging in this behavior in the future.
You must demonstrate that the defendant acted recklessly or wantonly to recover punitive damages.
Common Defenses to Product Liability Claims
As with any other personal injury claim, the defendant will argue that they aren't liable. One common defense raised is that the plaintiff has not sufficiently identified the product supplier that allegedly caused the injury. A plaintiff must be able to connect the product with the party responsible for manufacturing or supplying it.
Another defense a manufacturer might raise is that the plaintiff substantially altered the product after it left the manufacturer's control, which caused the plaintiff's injury. A related defense is that the plaintiff misused the product unforeseeably and that their misuse of the product caused the alleged injuries.
Implied and Express Warranties
Your product liability attorney may file suit based on breach of warranty claims or a violation of the implied warranty of merchantability. If that's the case, you will file your case under contract law. Under contract law, you must show that the express and implied warranties existed under the UCC. Your lawyer must also demonstrate that the defendant didn't honor their promises.
Need Help With a Product Liability Claim?
Product liability actions are quite complex, and establishing legal fault often requires the assistance and testimony of experts. Additionally, state legislatures have crafted laws and statutes that will affect your product liability action.
If you or a loved one has suffered an injury caused by a potentially defective product, an experienced product liability attorney can answer your questions and protect your interests. Learn more about state-specific laws and how much time you have to file a lawsuit on our statute of limitations by state page.
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Contact a qualified product liability attorney to make sure your rights are protected.