Hundreds of thousands of Americans are seriously injured every year by defective or harmful products, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission reports. In some cases, the manufacturers of these products can be held liable for allowing an unreasonably dangerous product to reach the hands of consumers. Under our nation’s strong product liability laws, injured consumers may be eligible to secure financial compensation – covering medical expenses and lost wages, along with pain and suffering.
What Is Product Liability Law?
While you may not know it walking through the aisles at Target or your local convenience store, every consumer product comes with a simple promise. Use the product as intended and you won’t get hurt. Manufacturers have an obligation, under what attorneys call “product liability law,” to produce, distribute and sell reasonably safe goods. In short, products should meet our ordinary expectations, in both use and risk, rather than pose unexpected dangers.
This is a legal duty, which holds true for the vast majority of products, from cars to foods that can spread dangerous infections agents. Companies, large or small, can be held accountable in court for violating their obligations. Product liability, however, actually extends to touch every company within the product’s chain of distribution, from its initial manufacturer and the manufacturers of component parts to a wholesaler and the retailer where you purchased it. Each of these sellers has a duty to ensure the product’s safety or warn consumers of reasonable risks. Likewise, if any one of these companies fails to uphold its duty, victims of resulting injury may be able to secure valuable compensation.
The Basics Of Product Liability
There’s no federal law on product liability. Instead, most product liability lawsuits will be based in various state laws, along with the Uniform Commercial Code, a set of laws established to standardize the rules around business transactions in America.
Beyond these laws, the vast majority of product liability lawsuits will be filed under one of the three legal theories:
- Strict Liability
- Breach of Warranty
We’ll cover these three theories in more detail below.
Most personal injury lawsuits, whether or not they involve consumer products, are based in the concept of negligence. Where products are concerned, the legal theory of negligence recognizes that manufacturers, distributors and retailers owe a duty of care to the people who will use their products. In short, manufacturers and other sellers must use reasonable care in making and selling a product, with an aim to minimizing the potential for harm to consumers.
Negligence can slip into the manufacturing and retail process at almost any point:
- manufacturing; allowing carelessness in the manufacturing process to result in product defects
- design; failing to design a reasonably safe product, including failing to perform adequate research on potential risks during the design process
- testing; failing to test a product adequately for potential risks
- warning; failing to provide adequate warnings of a product’s risks, including warnings of emergent dangers that become clear after a product has been released
- recall; failing to recall a dangerous product when necessary
In some cases, an injured consumer will bear the burden of proving that a manufacturer was negligent in designing, manufacturing or testing a product.
Res Ipsa Loquitor
However, a legal theory known as “res ipsa loquitor” can actually shift this burden to the defendant, who will then have to prove that they were not negligent.
“Res ipsa loquitor,” a Latin phrase that literally means “the thing speaks for itself,” suggests that an injury or accident would not have occurred unless someone had been negligent. In essence, the theory says that only negligence could have led to a defect like this. When properly invoked, “res ipsa loquitor” forces the product’s manufacturer to prove that no negligence took place during the manufacturing process, which can be difficult to prove.
Negligence isn’t always required to win a product liability lawsuit. A legal theory known as “strict liability” can be used to hold manufacturers and retailers accountable for defective products, whether or not anyone did anything specifically wrong. Strict liability is one of the strongest legal protections that consumers have. When strict liability applies, an injured consumer doesn’t have to prove that the manufacturer, wholesaler or retailer was negligent. The only thing necessary under strict liability is to prove that the product was defective.
So when does strict liability apply? The theory holds when all three of the following conditions are met:
- The product had an “unreasonably dangerous” defect that led to your injuries
- The product’s defect caused your injuries while you were using it for its intended purpose
- You didn’t change the product substantially from its original condition
While some states, notably Texas and Oklahoma, have recently passed laws to protect “innocent sellers,” strict liability can be used in many cases to hold retailers accountable for selling defective products, even ones they had no hand in designing or manufacturing.
Breach Of Warranty
Warranties are like guarantees, in which a product manufacturer promises that, if used correctly, the product will live up to certain standards of quality and reliability. Most products come with some form of explicit warranty, although you may have to pay extra for it. In the realm of product liability law, however, lawsuits are frequently filed over the breach of an “implied” warranty. No matter what explicit promises or warranties a manufacturer makes about its product, the majority of consumer products are also covered by two “implied” warranties, created by Article 2 of the Uniform Commercial Code:
- Warranty of Merchantability – the product is fit to use for the normal purposes that a purchaser would intend to use it; the product works as the manufacturer claims it will work
- Warranty of Fitness – this warranty applies to products intended for specific purposes. Take running shoes as an example. If you ask a retailer for running shoes, but they convince you to purchase slippers, your purchase is in violation of an implied warranty of fitness.
The warranty of merchantability in particular provides strong protection for consumers. When a product doesn’t live up to expected use, and consumers are injured as a result, the manufacturer can likely be held for violating this implied warranty.
Three Types Of Product Defect
In a product liability lawsuit, whether you rely on a theory of negligence, strict liability or breach of warranty, you will have to prove that the product was defective. So what do we mean by defective? In essence, defective products have some fault that makes them unreasonably dangerous, dangerous in a way that no reasonable consumer could have expected.
When we consider a manufacturer or distributor’s liability, three glaring types of product defect stand out.
1. Design Defects
Product liability cases involving design defects focus on problems with how the manufacturer planned to produce the product, rather than actual mistakes made during the manufacturing process.
Here, attorneys are looking for “inherent” flaws, ones that existed even before the product was ever put together, but made the product unreasonably dangerous from the outset. These types of product defects often create “foreseeable” risks, dangers that could have been inferred simply by looking at how the product was designed and imagining how a reasonable consumer would use it.
Designing A Safer Product
Not every dangerous design, however, will be considered defective in a court of law. Many states require that plaintiffs show that a reasonable alternative design existed, a different plan that could have minimized or eliminated the product’s risks. The test for a reasonable alternative design is rather strict. In addition to suggesting another workable option, plaintiffs often have to demonstrate that their alternative is:
- Feasible – the manufacturer would have had the ability to implement the alternative design
- Economically feasible – the alternative design would not have been prohibitively expensive
- Consistent with the product’s purpose – if implemented, the alternative design would have allowed the product to work as the manufacturer intended
Many alternative design arguments come down to economic feasability, the question of whether or not the re-designed product would cost too much to produce. Most courts use a cost-benefit analysis to answer this question, weighing the cost of implementing the alternative design against the cost of damages that the manufacturer and consumers would incur if the original design was left in place.
2. Manufacturing Defects
Even beautifully-designed products can injure consumers. Defects can also slip in during the manufacturing process, as a result of sub-standard controls, machine failure or human error. Specific mistakes, however, aren’t required to prove that a product was manufactured defectively. Manufacturing defects often represent a deviation from the product’s design, something the manufacturer did not intend to happen. Where product liability law is concerned, that doesn’t matter. All that matters is that a poorly-manufactured product left the assembly line and ended up in the hands of a consumer.
Manufacturing defect lawsuits are actually quite rare, in part because they are difficult to prove. Design defects make every unit of a product inherently dangerous, manufacturing problems usually only affect a select number of units. The problem is that, in order to decide whether or not a specific unit was defectively manufactured, most courts will want to see the actual unit involved in the accident – a difficult proposition if the product has been destroyed or damaged irreperably.
A theory called the “malfunction doctrine” can be helpful under these circumstances. If the way an accident occurred suggests that a product defect was to blame, and the plaintiff can successfully rule out other potential explanations, the plaintiff may be able to prove that a manufacturing defect existed.
3. Warning & Marketing Defects
Sometimes well-designed and well-manufactured products are still dangerous – when manufacturers and retailers fail to warn customers about non-obvious, but still reasonable, risks.
When a product poses acceptable risks that may be hidden from consumers, manufacturers have a duty to warn consumers of the danger and instruct them on how to avoid of mitigate the danger during use. Warnings aren’t always required, but manufacturarers are normally obligated to warn consumers when:
- a product poses risks that the manufacturer is aware of
- the risk is present when the product is used for its intended purpose
- the risk is not obvious to a reasonable user
Fail to warn consumers adequately and a manufacturer may find themselves liable for any injuries that result from the product’s intended use.
Contact A Product Liability Lawyer In Queens
Were you or a loved one injured by a defective product? You may be eligible to pursue damages in a personal injury lawsuit. Contact our experienced product liability attorneys today to learn more about your legal options in a free consultation.