Product liability is the area of law that deals with the liability of the manufacturer, wholesaler, or retailer of a product for injuries resulting from use of that product. This includes the manufacturer of component parts of the product, an assembling manufacturer, the wholesaler, the retail store or other ultimate seller of the product, and any other party in the distribution chain, regardless of whether you actually purchased the item yourself.
Example: You borrow an electrical cord with a design defect from a friend. The cord's wires cannot carry the electrical load it indicates that it can. The result is an electrical fire that burns down your house. You can file a product liability lawsuit against the maker of the electrical cord, its distributor, its wholesaler, and the retail store where it was originally purchased by your friend.
Research from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission indicates that defective or unsafe products cause 29.4 million injuries and 21,400 deaths each year. You or your child may be injured by something seemingly harmless or something you use everyday, such as a hair dryer, toaster, baby chair, toy, iron, coffee maker, air conditioner, car, hand tool, or even clothing. Product liability law gives consumers the ability to sue for and recover damages from manufacturers, distributors, and vendors for injuries resulting from accidents caused by products. Virtually all products are subject to products liability law, not just items on the store shelves — products subject to the law run the spectrum from food, drugs, appliances, automobiles, medical devices, medical implants, blood, tobacco, gases, real estate, writings, maps, and even commercial jets.
Products liability claims are tort-based claims that can arise from negligence, strict liability, or breach of warranty, though products liability is often focused on strict liability claims.
Strict liability is the term used to describe situations in which a person can be held liable for damages caused to another person even without negligence or other fault. Strict liability means "liability without fault," therefore a person is liable whether or not they were negligent and whether or not they intended to do any harm. The law imposes strict liability on inherently or abnormally dangerous activities, or activities that are likely to cause particular kinds of harm. A typical example of this type of activity is the use of explosives — if injury results from the use of explosives, regardless of the purpose for which they are used and the care exercised, the operator of the explosives is liable to those damaged by their use.
Strict liability is also often imposed on manufactured products, under the law of product liability. Strict liability claims do not involve proof of whether or not someone acted reasonably or used appropriate care in manufacturing a certain product. Translated to products liability terms, a defendant in a product liability case will be found liable for damages to a plaintiff if it is found that the product is defective, regardless of whether the manufacturer or supplier exercised great care when designing and manufacturing it. As such, a plaintiff does not have to demonstrate that the manufacturer or vendor was negligent or careless, only that:
- A defect in the product caused the accident;
- He or she was using the product in a manner consistent with the way it was meant to be used; and
- The product was not substantially changed between the time it left the seller or manufacturer's hands and the time it reached the plaintiff.
Even if you are not the original owner of the merchandise you can sue for product liability. For example, if a friend lends you a power saw that turns out to be defective and injures you, you can file a product liability claim against the manufacturer, distributor, wholesaler, and/or vendor of the item. Even a company doesn't actually make a product, but merely puts its label on it, is liable for any injuries the item causes.
Example: A supermarket contracts with a manufacturer to make a line of soft drinks for the store. The manufacturer uses a bottle that does not properly release pressure upon opening. If a child is injured by an exploding bottlecap, then the supermarket is liable as well as the manufacturer. This holds true even if the supermarket was unaware that the bottles were defective.
In a negligence claim, a plaintiff must show that a manufacturer, seller, wholesaler, or other party involved in the distributive chain had a duty to exercise reasonable care in the process of manufacturing or selling a product and failed to fulfill that duty, resulting in injury to the plaintiff. Negligence consists of doing something that a person of ordinary prudence would not do under the same or similar circumstances; or failing to do something that a person of ordinary prudence would do under the same or similar circumstances. This can take the form of negligence in drawing up or reviewing plans for a product, negligence in maintaining the machines that make the component parts of the product, negligence in failing to anticipate probable uses of the product, negligence in failing to inspect or test the product adequately, negligence in issuing inadequate warnings or instructions regarding the use of the product, or any other aspect of the manufacturing or distribution process where due care is not used.
A breach of warranty claim arises under the law of contracts, where the law imposes certain "implied warranties" on the sale of goods. Such warranties include the warranty of merchantability (that the goods are in proper condition for use and free of defects), and the warranty of fitness for a particular purpose (e.g., the refrigerator must be able to keep food cold and fresh; the chair must be capable of supporting a person's weight). These warranties are called implied warranties because the law assumes that they apply even if they are not expressly stated. If a product does not meet these standards, the purchaser may have the right to return it and get back the purchase price or sometimes to receive monetary damages. The law of contracts covers economic loss caused by the breach of warranties in the sale of goods. The Uniform Commercial Code, Article 2, also deals with the sales of goods and the implied and express warranties of merchantibility in the sales of goods in §§ 2-314 and 2-315.
- Product Liability
- Types of Product Defects
- Defenses to Products Liability Claims
- Our Strategy in Product Liability Cases
- Statute of Limitations for Product Liability