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A Detailed Look at Product Liability Law

Written by Berkowitz

product liability sheet with gavel

As a consumer, you purchase products from manufacturers assuming that the products you purchase are safe. Sadly, not all products released to the consumer market are safe – and some are extremely dangerous.

Product liability lawsuits take many forms, but the main basis of those lawsuits is that you or a loved one is harmed because of a product’s defect. The defect, however, could be in a warranty, design, or manufacture.

If a defective product injures you, it is best to consult with an attorney. These claims are complicated and involve multiple parties, which makes it intimidating for you, the victim. While you wait for your consultation, it can help to familiarize yourself with everything there is to know about product liability law.

The Types of Product Defects

In a product liability lawsuit, the plaintiff must prove that the product was defective in some way and caused an injury.  To do this, the plaintiff will file one of three options in their claim:

  1. Design Defect
  2. Manufacturing Defects
  3. Marketing Defects

The Design Defect

A design defect means that the product itself has a flawed design. The product’s design could make it inherently dangerous; therefore, the issue was not with manufacturing, but the design of the product itself.

What Constitutes a Design Defect?

A design defect is a foreseeable issue that could lead to an injury. The product, even if used as intended, poses a risk to the health and safety of others. The plaintiff must show that the risks for injury could have been reduced or avoided entirely by redesigning the product.

To do this, the plaintiff’s attorney must prove three items:

  1. The manufacturer could have produced a safer alternative. In this instance, the manufacturer could have easily produced a safer product that would not have lead to a serious injury.
  2. The cost to modify was economically obtainable. The manufacturer may argue that an alternative design is not economical. Therefore, the plaintiff must prove that the alternative was something the manufacturer could have done at a reasonable cost.
  3. The performance would not be altered. Most importantly, you must show that the product could fulfill its intended use, even with the modifications.

The Use of Alternative Design Analysis and Cost Analysis

A design defect case is more than stating a product was flawed in design. Instead, experts must be brought in to examine the product and testify. These experts can determine if there was an alternative, safer design, and if the cost of that alternative would be feasible.

The courts expect a cost-benefit analysis created to determine these very factors.

Assessing Consumer Expectations

Lastly, in the design defect phase, a consumer expectation test could be conducted. This test is used to determine if the danger from the product goes beyond the expectations of the consumer. However, it is a highly subjective test – which is why most states will use the alternative design and cost analysis rather than assessing a consumer’s expectations.

Manufacturing Defects

There are instances where a perfectly safe design causes an injury. This can occur when the product was manufactured improperly.

What is a Manufacturing Defect?

Manufacturing defects are flaws that the manufacturer did not intend to make, and do not stem from any defect in the design. As defined in tort law, a manufacturing defect is a product that departs from the intended design even with all possible care exercised.

Therefore, the manufacturer could have been careful with the design phase, including selecting materials and testing, but the factory manufacturing created an error in the product that caused an injury.

When poorly manufactured products leave the facility without proper quality control, the strict liability policy will apply.

The Issue with Proving a Manufacturing Defect

Manufacturing defects are not always easy to prove. The defense may use contributing factors to try and limit the fault of the manufacturer. Also, if the product had a defect, but the plaintiff also used it improperly, then part of the fault would fall on the plaintiff as well as the manufacturer.

Marketing Defects

The last type of defect is with marketing. This has nothing to do with how the product was designed or made. Instead, it focuses on the advertising or warnings.

The product is deemed defective if the instructions are inadequate or fail to warn a consumer about a foreseeable injury that could result from use of the product. The failure to place warning labels – or proper warning labels – could result in a marketing defect lawsuit.

The Manufacturer’s Duty to Warn the Consumer

Warning labels are required by the state and federal government. With these regulations, manufacturers are held to two general duties when determining when and what labels to place on their products.

  • First, a manufacturer must warn of all hidden dangers that could happen with a product; even if they are unlikely.
  • Second, manufacturers must properly instruct consumers how to use their product safely so that they can avoid any inherent dangers.

Example of a Failure to Warn

A manufacturer has released a string of outdoor decorative lights. These lights are prone to overheat, and the manufacturer’s testing reveals this issue. The overheating is not preventable and is part of the design. However, the hot lights do not pose a risk unless a consumer were to touch the string of lights after they have been on for an extended period of time.

In this instance, the manufacturer must place warning labels indicating that the lights get hot and should not be touched after being turned lit. Furthermore, they should notify consumers to keep the lights away from small children.

In this example, if the manufacturer fails to warn the consumer about this potential injury, and the consumer is injured, then the manufacturer has breached its duty to warn the public of a potential hazard.

Determining if a Warning is Required

Naturally, not all products require warning labels. Some companies may prefer to place a warning label on their products regardless if the warning label is required. However, the government requires warning labels in several specific situations:

  • The product has a danger that may be hidden to the consumer.
  • The manufacturer knows about a potential injury.
  • The danger is present even when the product is used correctly.
  • The danger is not obvious to the user without the warning.

The Consumer’s Responsibility

Consumers cannot put the blame on the manufacturer entirely. If the consumer ignores warning labels, and an injury occurs, they cannot hold the manufacturer responsible.

Who is Responsible in a Product Liability Case?

A product liability case only applies when a product is sold in the marketplace. Products sold in second-hand stores, at garage sales, or private sales between consumers are not eligible – even if the product was defective.

If the product was sold in the consumer market, liability applies. Realize this also applies to parties that did not buy the product, but were injured by it. Therefore, if a family member purchases a product, gives it to another family member as a gift, and that family member is injured, the injured can still sue the manufacturer.

Liability Falls in the Chain of Distribution

Product liability falls anywhere in the chain of distribution. Therefore, depending on the extent of the defect, the list of defendants may be quite extensive. Some responsible parties in the chain of distribution could include:

  • Manufacturers
  • Assemblers
  • Installers
  • Manufacturers of components
  • Wholesalers
  • Retail stores selling products to consumers

The Power of Strict Liability – Does It Apply to Your Case?

Strict liability forgoes the normal requirements of a personal injury claim. In an ordinary case, you would be required to prove that the manufacturer or other party was negligent. In product liability cases where strict liability applies, you cannot possibly show the same elements as you would in an ordinary personal injury claim.

That is why the courts allow for strict liability. As a consumer, you cannot be expected to inspect products or prove that the quality control of one company is inadequate.

Under strict liability, you are entitled to compensation from the manufacturer of the product or from the retailer who sold that product to you. Strict liability laws allow the injured person to collect compensation from the at-fault party without proving that the manufacturer was negligent.

The Requirements of Strict Liability

To qualify for strict liability, three elements must be present:

  1. The product was unreasonably dangerous in design, manufacture, or lack of warning.
  2. The product was not changed substantially after being sold, such as containing multiple aftermarket products or upgrades.
  3. The defect caused an injury while being used as it was intended.

Common Defenses Seen in Product Liability Claims

Some defense attorneys will mount a defense strategy against your claim. They will make it difficult for you to prove that the product was defectively manufactured or flawed in its design. Attorneys can argue that you altered the product in some way, and this alteration is what created the dangerous condition.  Or they may argue that you used the product in an unforeseeable way – meaning that the manufacturer could not possibly have predicted the injuries you would sustain.

The Issue of Unavoidably Unsafe Products

Some consumer products are inherently dangerous, but if one were to remove the dangers of that product, the product’s purpose would be affected.

For example, a chainsaw or electric kitchen knife. If manufacturers were to make these products dull – to avoid a cut – the product would not serve its purpose.

Speak with an Attorney Regarding Your Product Injuries

Bottom line, if you are injured by a defective product, your best option is to speak with an attorney. An attorney can help determine if you have a case,  and what type of liability claim you can file.

Contact the experienced attorneys of Berkowitz and Hanna, LLC today to schedule a no-obligation case evaluation. Contact us online to get started.