Product liability refers to when a manufacturer, seller, or retailer of a product is held liable for placing the defective product into the hands of a consumer, or allowing the defective product to enter into the stream of commerce. These parties can be held liable whether or not they were negligent.

Any party that is responsible for any portion of the manufacturing process of the product may be held liable, just as the seller may be held liable. An example of this would be the manufacture of a vehicle. One manufacturer makes the tires, another makes the engine, etc. The individual pieces are assembled in order to make the entire vehicle; following assembly, the vehicle is sent to a retailer or dealer.

If the vehicle is defective in any way, there are many parties that may be liable for any injuries caused by the vehicle:

  • The assembling manufacturer;
  • The wholesaler;
  • The dealer; and
  • The manufacturer of the part of the product that was found to be defective.

Product defects can be categorized in three different ways:

  • Design Defects: The design of the product is unsafe; meaning, the product is unsafe before it ever enters the manufacturing process. An example of this would be how if a coffee cup is designed in such a way that the bottom melts whenever there is a hot drink in it, it has a design defect;
  • Manufacturing Defects: The design of the product is adequate, but the method of making the product is unsafe. An example of this would be how if a desk is mistakenly assembled at the factory without several screws that are necessary in the design, which may cause the desk to collapse, it has a manufacturing defect; and
  • Warning Defects: When a product does not have sufficient instructions or warnings about how to properly use the product, and someone is injured as a result. An example of this would be how if a person buys a lawn mower that does not have safety warnings about the blade, and the blade cuts them, there is a warning defect.

What Is Failure To Warn?

The failure to warn is a specific principle of product liability laws, previously discussed as a warning defect. When a product fails to provide an adequate warning of the dangers which are associated with the use of the product, it is considered to be a failure to warn. Warning labels which are located on the products themselves, as well as the owner’s manual which is included with the product, must be clearly and concisely written. Additionally, warning labels must explain all of the possible dangers and risks which may be associated with the use of the product.

Both manufacturers as well as suppliers are legally obligated to place clear and complete warnings on their products, warning of any dangers which may not be immediately apparent to the average consumer. However, it is important to note that a supplier or a manufacturer does not have a duty to warn of any dangers that a reasonable user should anticipate. An example of this would be putting a warning label on a knife which states that the knife is sharp.

Failure to warn claims adhere to the same basic principles of any personal injury lawsuit. A plaintiff in a failure to warn lawsuit must prove the following elements:

  • That the manufacturer knew of the danger posed by the product;
  • That the manufacturer had a duty to warn consumers of the danger associated with the product;
  • The manufacturer was negligent in terms of their duty to warn; and
  • The manufacturer’s failure to warn is what actually caused the plaintiff’s injury.

A defendant may present certain arguments in order to defeat the plaintiff’s claim, such as:

  • The defendant was not aware of the danger of the product;
  • The defendant had no duty to warn of the danger;
  • The defendant was not negligent in terms of their duty to warn;
  • The plaintiff’s injury was not a result of an inadequate warning; or
  • The warning was actually visible, and the plaintiff did not see it.

In order for a defendant to be liable, the person using the product must show that they would have followed the warning label, if one existed. As was previously noted, the duty to warn does not apply to dangers which are obvious to the ordinary user. However, there may be a duty to warn against dangers associated with certain uses of the product when used for something other than its intended purpose, if it is a foreseeable use of the product.

The warning on a product is required to be:

  • Visible;
  • Informative; and
  • Useful to the consumer.

Examples of language considered to be adequate warning language may include:

  • A word indicating potential risks, including caution, danger, or warning;
  • Identification of the nature of the risk, including possible fire or poison; and/or
  • An explanation of how the specified danger can be avoided.

A warning label on a product must be placed where it can be read by the users of the product. What this means is that if there was a warning on the product, and the plaintiff failed to see it, a defendant may not be held liable for the plaintiff’s injuries.

What Is The Sophisticated User Doctrine?

The manufacturer may argue that the user is considered to be a “sophisticated user,” and as such does not need to be warned because they knew or should have known of the dangers associated with using the product. This doctrine has evolved differently in different states, and it may be called:

  • Sophisticated purchaser;
  • Sophisticated intermediary; and/or
  • The learned intermediary defense, depending on the state and/or circumstances.

The sophisticated user has reason to know, through expertise, how to safely use the dangerous product. They also have the experience, training, professional skills, or legal duties such as that they are expected to know about a product’s potential adverse or hazardous effects. There are two types of sophisticated users:

  • Sophisticated End User: The person who ultimately uses the product is considered to be the end user. An end user may be considered sophisticated if they have some sort of training that would allow them to know of the dangers of the product, without needing a warning.
    • An example of this would be how if a well-trained technician or mechanic uses a piece of equipment that they know is dangerous through their training, they are considered to be a sophisticated end user. The manufacturer of welding equipment may argue that a welder knew or should have known that the equipment was dangerous, based on their training as a welder; and
  • Sophisticated Intermediary: If the person who ultimately uses the product has no training, or does not have reason to know the dangers of the product, the manufacturer may try to use the sophisticated intermediary defense. As a sophisticated intermediary, the responsibility to warn the user may transfer from the manufacturer to the sales outlet. It may transfer to another middle entity, if that entity is considered to be a sophisticated user.
    • An example of this would be how if a miner using a respirator uses the wrong filter number, or inserts it incorrectly because their employer failed to instruct them in terms of how to correctly use the safety equipment, the manufacturer may use the defense that the employer is a sophisticated intermediary. The manufacturer will argue that the employer was the one who failed to warn the employee, and as such the employer should be liable instead of the manufacturer.

Do I Need An Attorney For Help With The Sophisticated User Doctrine?

You should consult with a products liability lawyer if you are experiencing legal issues associated with the Sophisticated User Doctrine.

An experienced products and services attorney can help you understand your legal rights and options according to your state’s specific laws, and will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.