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Can I Sue Products that Come from Japan?

What you probably mean to ask is whether you can sue a person or company who is responsible for a defective product that came from a foreign country like Japan. Of course, you may have some recourse under the local laws of that country, for instance by going to Japanese courts or asking the Japanese government to help you hold the culprit responsible.

More realistically, however, you would probably want to know if you can sue here in America rather than trying to get your case in front of some high court in Japan, thousands of miles away. For that, you can consult with product liability lawyers, who are a type of personal injury attorneys.

Product Liability Claims in America

If you bought your product here in the United States, local state and federal courts will give you protections under product liability laws. This falls under the subject matter of negligence principles, which are civil tort (injury) laws that deal with accidents resulting from consumer products.

A claimant's cause of action for product liability will vary under the laws of your state, but it will generally involve:

  1. a product
  2. found to be defective,
  3. That injured you,
  4. in the course of its intended use, and
  5. the defect was the direct and foreseeable cause (causation) of your injury.

The second element above refers to defects in:

  • Design — poorly-designed product
  • Manufacturing — defect in the product manufacturing process
  • Warnings — poor or missing product labeling

Strict Liability and Negligence in Product Liability Claims

As a general rule, a manufacturer will be found to be "strictly liable" for defects in their products irrespective of whether they were careless or negligent in causing your injuries. This means that if a dangerous product injured you because of a product defect, you will not have the burden of proof to show that the manufacturer was negligent.

This doesn't mean you can't sue the manufacturer for negligence — but if your state has strict liability laws, you might as well take advantage of them because it'll make it easier for you to prove your case. Negligence is also relevant when you're suing other people up and down the chain of distribution. This might not necessarily involve the manufacturer per se. For example, you may use a negligence claim as a recourse against a retailer, shipper, or distributor, if you show:

  1. They had a duty to make sure you are sold a safe product — for instance, because you were their customer and reasonably trusted them to use reasonable care;
  2. They breached that duty by selling you a defective product — for instance, by failing to ensure that the product was properly sealed in its box and safe from damage;
  3. Their breach caused injuries to you — for example, if the product had been properly sealed, it would not have been damaged in a way that would injure you; and
  4. You have suffered damages, such as pain and suffering and wasted money.

Breach of Contract Claims in America

Alternatively, your claim may be brought under contract rather than tort law. If there's an agreement (oral or written) between you and the seller of a product, the seller may have contractual liability to you. The contract may also be implied from the conduct of the parties, such as when a product is given by a seller to a buyer in exchange for money.

To sue a defective product manufacturer under a breach of contract theory, you'll want to show:

  1. A valid contract existed between you and the manufacturer;
  2. You held up your side of the deal by paying for the product and using it properly (for its intended purpose);
  3. The manufacturer failed to honor their part of the deal because they didn't sell you the safe, functioning product they promised you under contract;
  4. You suffered damages (such as property damage and wasted money) as a result of the manufacturer's failure to honor the contract.

Local Japanese Law & Foreign Countries in General

It's worth noting that if the person or company you're suing has no presence in the United States, you might not have much to gain from suing them here even if you win. A U.S. court might give you a favorable judgment, but enforcing the court's decision — that is, forcing the defendant to pay up for your claims — would be challenging if all of the company's property is in a foreign country like Japan.

(There are some limited exceptions, such as the ability to force a foreign government or its private actors to adhere to the decisions of an American court. Read more about the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 (FSIA) in our article about suing foreign governments.)

In some cases, if you have an agreement with the seller of the product you purchased, you may have contractual obligations to seek recourse in Japan first. Alternatively, even if your contract with the Tokyo seller or manufacturer doesn't prohibit you from suing them in the United States, it might state that your claim is governed by Japanese law.

Under Japanese law, the Consumer Contract Act and the Product Liability Act are intended to protect individual consumers. While these laws are not ordinarily relevant to product liability and breach of contract claims brought in the United States, an American court may give some deference to Japan's local laws if you have a contract with a foreign Japanese business operator that requires the application of Japanese laws in the event of disputes or injuries that arise.

Of course, if you're suing a defendant under product liability laws in your state, you won't have to refer to any contract. The other benefit to this approach is that you can sue everyone involved in the chain of distribution for the defective product, including the shipper, retailer, and distributor who may have a presence in the United States even if the manufacturer itself is only located in Japan.

Remedies

Remedies are judicial awards that you can recover if you sue and prevail against a product manufacturer or distributor. The court may enforce or order:

  • Warranties — If your contract with the manufacturer has a warranty (anywhere from a few months to a few years) then you might be able to get the product repaired or refunded.
  • Monetary compensation for physical injuries and property damages —This can be anything from pain, suffering, and medical bills to the replacement cost of a product.
  • Punitive Damages — You may be able to recover additional money intended to punish the wrongdoer for outrageous misconduct and deter others from doing the same in the future.

Class action relief may be available. A class action is a procedural mechanism that allows people to group their claims with similar claims and sue someone in a single lawsuit. If you've ever gotten a $10 check in the mail for no apparent reason, read the fine print to see if it's a class action settlement payment. If others were injured by a product from Japan in the same way that you were, you may be able to persuade a judge to allow you to group your claims together and bring a single case.

Contact a Product Liability Attorney

A professional legal representative can help you bring a product liability lawsuit. Product liability lawyers, a type of personal injury attorney, may work on contingency fee arrangements, meaning that their fees are taken out of any money that you recover.

You should be aware that there may a limitation period after which an injured party will be barred from filing their product liability case. You can view the applicable statute of limitations for your state here on Findlaw.

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