The Connecticut product liability statute governs products liability claims in Connecticut. There are two main ways of classifying products liability claims: based on the nature of the product defect, and based on the theory of liability. Three types of defects can be alleged: a design defect, a manufacturing defect, or a warning defect. Each of these types of claims can be pursued under a strict liability, negligence, or breach of warranty theory of liability.
Common Product Liability Scenarios
Defective products can cause injury in a myriad of different ways. The following are five hypothetical examples:
- You suffered food poisoning from a frozen dinner you purchased at the grocery store.
- Another driver’s brake drums malfunctioned, causing an accident that injured you.
- You are pregnant, and you and your baby were sickened by a prescription medication that failed to mention that it should not be taken by pregnant women (you might also have a medical malpractice claim here).
- You are a construction worker, and you were injured by a faulty scaffolding system at a construction site.
- A badly designed electrical distribution system causes your house to burn down, killing one of your family members and thereby triggering a wrongful death claim.
Products Liability: The Basics
Products liability law can impose personal injury liability on the manufacturer, wholesaler, or retailer of a product – basically, anyone in the product’s chain of distribution. Depending on the theory of liability used, it can protect not only purchasers of a product, but also users and even bystanders who are injured by a product defect. A products liability claim can also compensate for property damage.
As an example, suppose that a car accident occurred due to a defectively manufactured brake drum. The defendant could, of course, be the brake drum manufacturer. It could also be a distributor or retailer of the product. The plaintiff (the person claiming compensation) could be the owner of the car, a passenger, the driver of the other car, a passenger in the other car, or even a pedestrian – as long as he was injured in the accident.
Legal Elements of a Product Liability Claim
To win a product liability claim, you must prove the following:
- The defendant was the manufacturer, wholesaler, distributor, or retailer of the product.
The defendant must be a merchant – he cannot be, for example, a private party who sold you the product at a garage sale.
- The product contains a design, manufacturing, or warning defect.
- The defect was present at the time the product left the defendant’s control.
- The product reached you without a substantial change in its condition – at least with respect to the defect you are complaining of.
- The defect rendered the product unreasonably dangerous under the “consumer expectations test” (it was more dangerous than the ordinary consumer would have expected it to be).
- The specific defect you are claiming actually caused the harm you are complaining of.
- You suffered physical and/or financial harm as a result of the defect.
Types of Product Defects
The following is a description of the three categories of product defects you may claim under Connecticut products liability law:
A design defect is a defect in the product itself, which is present even when it is manufactured exactly according to specifications. An example might be an automobile cruise control system that is designed to shut off only when a button is pressed on the steering wheel, not when the brakes are tapped.
Defendants tend to fight hard against design defect claims, because losing the case might mean that they have to take an entire line of products off the market for redesign. Nevertheless, in some ways, it is easier to prove a design defect claim than a manufacturing claim. For example, it is easier to maintain a design defect claim than a manufacturing defect claim if the product was destroyed in the accident.
A manufacturing defect occurs when the product is not manufactured according to its design specifications. The defect might affect only the product that caused the injury, or it might affect an entire batch of products. An example of a manufacturing defect might be a case in which the glue that holds a tire together is contaminated with sawdust, thereby causing a blowout that, in turn, causes a traffic accident.
A warning defect is not a defect in the product itself but in the labeling that accompanies a product. A product might be well-designed, it may have been manufactured according to specifications, and it may perform safely under most conditions. Nevertheless, the use of the product might involve a danger that, although reasonable if known about and taken into consideration, is unreasonable otherwise.
A manufacturer is not expected to warn of every risk, but only risks that are known of or that the manufacturer could have discovered with due diligence. Once the risk is known, the manufacturer must clearly warn of the risk, and the notification must be conspicuous enough to attract the attention of the consumer. A manufacturer is even expected to warn against the consequences of predictable misuse of the product.
A strict liability products liability claim does not require you to prove fault on the part of the defendant. In a negligence claim, however, you are required to prove fault. So why would you ever bother to assert a negligence claim in a products liability case if it simply adds to the elements that you must prove to win the case?
Various fact patterns surface from time to time in which it is advantageous to file a negligence claim. If you want to seek punitive damages, for example, you must prove that the harm you suffered was the result of the defendant’s reckless disregard for your safety. Punitive damages are capped by law, but they can amount to as much as two-thirds of your total award.
Breach of Warranty Claims
A breach of warranty claim is contractual. The essence of the claim is that the defendant made an express or implied guarantee concerning the product, but the product did not perform according to the warranty and you were thereby injured. Such a claim might make sense if the deficiency in the product was the result of a guarantee that the product is fit for a particular purpose, for example, when, in fact, using it for that purpose is unreasonably dangerous.
Defenses against Product Liability Claims
The following is a list of partial and complete defenses to product liability claims. A partial defense can reduce, but not eliminate, liability, while a complete defense can reduce the defendant’s liability to zero. Some of these defenses are affirmative defenses that can be asserted by a defendant, while others are simply consequences of the victim’s failure to fully prove his claim.
- Expiration of the statute of limitations: Once the accident occurs, you generally have three years from the date of the accident to file a products liability lawsuit. If the victim dies, the personal representative of the probate estate has three years from the date of death to sue. The time limit might be extended if you didn’t discover your claim immediately (if you were injured slowly by a defective drug, for example).
- Expiration of the statute of repose: Even if you comply with the statute of limitations deadline, you must also comply with the statute of repose deadline – you must file a lawsuit within ten years after you last parted with possession or control of the product.
- The product’s danger was unavoidable (and therefore not “unreasonably” dangerous): Many products have inherent risks that cannot be avoided – an automobile, for example, or a chain saw. A product is not defective and unreasonably dangerous simply because its use carries unavoidable risks.
- The accident was partly your fault: This is a partial defense, and if it is successful, your compensation with be reduced by your percentage of fault (20 percent, for example).
- Your injury was not caused by the product’s defect: Proving causation can be tricky. If you were injured in a fire, for example, it could be difficult to prove that the fire was caused by faulty electrical wiring in a product that was destroyed in the fire. It doesn’t matter how dangerous the defect was if the defect didn’t actually cause the accident.
- You cannot prove your damages: Even if you can prove the defendant’s liability for the accident, you must still prove every dollar of the damages you are claiming and you must do it with admissible evidence. If you can only prove $100 worth of damages, you cannot be compensated more than $100; if you can prove a million dollars in damages, you could receive up to a million dollars in compensation.
- You misused the product: “Misuse” means using the product in a way that the manufacturer did not intend. If someone dies in a drowning accident while using a tire inner tube as a float, for example, it is unlikely that any products liability claim can be asserted. This is even if the defect was one that could have caused a dangerous blowout on the road if the tire had been used as intended.
- The product was substantially modified after it left the stream of commerce: You might lose a products liability claim based on an automobile that you “souped up” in your garage after you bought it, for example.
- Failure to mitigate your damages: This is another partial defense. Failure to mitigate your damages means failure to do everything reasonably possible to limit your losses. If you were injured and failed to follow your doctor’s instructions, for example, the defendant cannot be held liable for the extent to which your condition worsened due to this failure.
- You are claiming a manufacturing defect, but you discarded the product or it was destroyed in the accident: This won’t necessarily sink your claim, but it could make it a lot more difficult to win – especially if the defect affected only the particular product you were using and not other products in the same batch.
In all likelihood, if you have a credible claim, the defendant is probably going to want to settle with you out of court (well over 90 percent of products liability claims are resolved this way). Nevertheless, your ability to win in court, in case of a trial, is one of the two critical components of your bargaining power. That means you must be able to prove your claim with evidence that complies with the complex rules of the Connecticut Code of Evidence.
The other critical component of your bargaining power is your ability to negotiate. To negotiate well, you are going to have to thoroughly understand the legal issues involved and you are going to have to know the true value of your claim. At Berkowitz Hanna, we know how to estimate the value of your claim and we can do the negotiating for you. However, only you will have the authority to agree to a specific settlement amount.
Let’s Make It Happen Together
If you were injured by a defective product, you might have a valid products liability claim – and it might be worth far more than you think. Call Berkowitz Hanna today, or contact us online for a free initial consultation. We take cases from all over Connecticut through our offices in Stamford, Bridgeport, Danbury, and Shelton. Remember – since we work on a contingency basis, you don’t need a dime in your pocket to retain us.