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 What Is Product Liability?

A product liability holds the manufacturer or seller of a product accountable for placing a defective product into the stream of commerce. Any party that is responsible for any part of the manufacture of the product can be held liable for any resulting injuries, just as any seller may be held liable.

An example of this would be a vehicle. They are often produced by numerous manufacturers: one creates the tires, another creates the engine, etc. All of the individual pieces are brought together and assembled, then the vehicle may go to a retailer or dealer. If the resulting vehicle is defective, any of the following parties may be held liable for any resulting injuries:

  • The assembling manufacturer;
  • The wholesaler;
  • The dealer; and/or
  • The manufacturer of the piece that was found to be defective.

Defective products are governed by a group of legal rules dictating who is responsible for these injuries, known as products liability law. This is a distinct category of law when compared to ordinary personal injury suits. Product liability laws are designed to protect consumers, as well as compensate them for their injuries and serve as a deterrent to others by punishing those who make or sell unsafe goods.

Product liability laws have determined that manufacturers and sellers are held to a higher standard than the average defendant in a civil lawsuit. This fact can make damage recovery easier for the injured party when compared to other civil lawsuits.

What Are The Different Types Of Product Liability Claims?

As there are no federal laws governing products liability cases, most lawsuits are filed in state courts according to that specific state’s laws. In order to help encourage as much uniformity as possible through the various jurisdictions, the Department of Commerce published the Model Uniform Products Liability Act in 1979.

Product liability claims are generally based on the legal theories of negligence, breach of warranty, and strict liability. Strict liability is the most commonly used. Below is a summarization of the legal theories:

  • Negligence: The elements of a negligence claim remain the same for a products liability suit. The defendant owes the plaintiff a duty of care to prevent unreasonable risk of harm and injury when using their product. If that duty of care is violated and causes someone harm as a result, the violator may be held liable for damages;
  • Strict Liability: Strict liability eliminates any intent element, meaning that the plaintiff does not need to prove negligent or reckless behavior. If the product is defective and causes injury, then liability exists; and
  • Breach of Warranty: A warranty is a type of guarantee made by the seller regarding the good or product.
    • Express warranties are created by an overt statement or action by the seller. An example of this would be an oral or written promise about a product, but descriptions of a product or a model of the product are included.
    • Implied warranties are created by law, and apply to products regardless of whether the seller makes any statement. The two most common implied warranties are implied warranty of merchantability, and implied warranty of fitness for particular use.

Express warranties guarantee that the product is fit for use in the way it is intended to be used. Implied warranties are created when the buyer tells the seller how they wish to use the product, and the seller confirms that the product can be used in that way.

What Are The Elements Of a Product Liability Claim?

When a consumer makes a products liability case, they must prove the following:

  • A product has been sold in the marketplace to them;
  • A seller or manufacturer was under an obligation to sell or manufacture that product in such a way to meet the ordinary expectation of average consumers;
  • The product contains a design defect or a manufacturing defect, which will be further discussed below;
  • The defect in the product is what caused the product to be unreasonably dangerous;
  • It is foreseeable, meaning predictable, that an average consumer could have been injured by the defect; and
  • The injury caused an average consumer to sustain damages.

A design defect is a defect in the way a product is initially designed. The defect in the design renders the product as inherently unsafe. This kind of defect exists when the designer was planning the item, but before the product is manufactured. An example of this would be a child car seat that does not properly seat-belt the child, due to a flaw in the product design. Another example would be a clothing dresser that falls over too easily and does not come with hardware or a suggestion to anchor the piece to a wall.

A manufacturing defect is a defect resulting from how the product is put together or assembled. Prior and up to the point of assembly, there is nothing defective about the product. However, during the assembly process, the product becomes defective either due to some mistake or incorrect assembly. This mistake renders the product as unsafe, especially as it now has the potential to cause harm or injury.

How Can I File a Product Liability Claim?

As previously mentioned, there are no federal laws governing product liability and related claims. State laws permit multiple theories of recovery for an injury, when the injury is caused by a defective product. There are two product liability theories of recovery: the negligence theory of recovery, and the strict liability theory of recovery.

The negligence theory of recovery requires that one of the following parties:

  • The defendant manufacturer;
  • Distributor; and/or
  • Seller, that owed the injured consumer a duty to make, distribute, or sell a product free from defects.

The consumer must then prove that the defendant breached that duty, and that the plaintiff sustained an injury as a result. This injury must be able to be remedied or made better with a damages award. Damages include quantifiable expenses that can be measured in dollar amounts, such as medical and hospital expenses.

Requiring a consumer to prove exactly how a product manufacturer was negligent in product design can be impossible. As such, the law may allow a plaintiff to file a lawsuit under the theory of strict liability. Under this theory, a plaintiff need not show negligence. It does not matter how carefully the product was made; the defendant can be held liable regardless.

In order to prevail against a manufacturer in a product liability claim, the plaintiff must show that:

  • The manufacturer sold the product;
  • The consumer used it in an intended way;
  • The product did not substantially change from the condition in which it was first sold; and
  • A defect in the product is what caused an injury, resulting in damages.

In order to be successful against a non-manufacturer, the plaintiff does not need to prove that the seller acted negligently by allowing the product to be sold in a defective condition. They need only show that they purchased the product, and that that product use caused injury because of a defect.

However, there are limits as to whom a plaintiff may sue under strict liability. A plaintiff can only recover against those sellers and renters who regularly sell the kind of product that caused the injury. An example of this would be how they can sue a seller who operates a car lot, but will face more challenges if they attempt to sue a seller who is trying to sell one singular vehicle.

Are There Any Defenses To a Product Liability Claim?

A defendant may show that something other than negligence is what caused the plaintiff’s injuries. They would need to prove that the manner of injury could not have been foreseen; as such, it could not have been prevented by safer manufacture or design.

A manufacturer or seller can defend against a strict liability claim by proving that the plaintiff was aware of the defect prior to the injury, and yet continued to use the product. A seller may also defeat a strict liability claim by showing that:

  • The dangers of a product are known to the public;
  • The dangers are inherent; and
  • The manufacturer or seller provided clear warning of the dangers associated with the product.

Do I Need An Attorney For a Product Liability Case?

If you have been injured because of a defective or dangerous product, you should consult with an experienced and local defective products lawyer. An area attorney will be most aware of your state’s specific laws regarding product liability claims, and will also be able to provide you with the most relevant legal advice. Finally, an experienced consumer attorney can also represent you in court, as needed.

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