What Constitutes “Product Misuse” in a Product Liability Case?
In a product liability case, a product has malfunctioned in a way that causes serious injuries to an individual.
In some of the most serious cases, these injuries result in huge medical bills and expenses, loss of wages, loss of consortium, and other damages.
In an unfortunate situation like this, the individual can sue for damages because of their injuries. Who they sue depends on several factors. For example, they may sue the manufacturer of the product or they may sue the distributor of the product, and there are numerous entities in between that may be at-fault in part or in full.
Regardless of who is being sued, it is essential that the injured party, or the plaintiff, in a product liability suit, proves negligence on the part of the defendant or the party being sued. However, the defendant will naturally want to avoid liability so that they can avoid paying damages. And there are numerous defenses that they might use to avoid liability. One such defense is product misuse.
Standard Product Misuse
Standard product misuse is a defense that is used to avoid liability in a product liability case. This is a form of affirmative defense. The defendant will accept that the injured party was injured because of their product; however, they will claim that the plaintiff incurred their injuries because they misused the product, and as such, they will claim that liability does not rest with them.
Here’s an example:
Let’s say that an individual purchased a coffee table for their living room because they wanted something to set magazines and beverages on while they watched television. They put the coffee table in their living room and used it as intended. But one day, there was a large insect high up on the ceiling, so the owner of the coffee table moved the coffee table toward where the insect was, stood on top of it, and attempted to swat the bug. As they were doing this, the coffee table broke under their weight, and they were seriously injured as a result of their fall.
If the injured party were to sue the manufacturer of the coffee table for liability in their personal injuries, the manufacturer of the coffee table may come back with a product misuse defense. The manufacturer would say that their coffee table was not meant to be stood on. This was not the intended function of the table, and therefore, the plaintiff misused the product, and their injuries were their own fault.
In a situation like this, it will depend on the jury or judge whether or not the plaintiff is awarded damages. In some situations, a plaintiff may still come out on the winning side with their claim if they can convince the jury or judge that how they used the coffee table was “foreseeable,” and they were never warned by the product manufacturer that standing on the coffee table could be dangerous.
“Foreseeable use” of a product essentially refers to uses of a given product that the manufacturer should expect. For example, you may notice that the shallow end of in-ground pools will often have warnings on the side that tells swimmers not to dive into three feet of water. Most swimmers know that you should not dive into three feet of water, but it is a possibly foreseeable situation that a swimmer may attempt to dive into three feet of water. In this case, if they were injured because of doing this, the injured party would most likely be unable to sue the pool installer, the manufacturer or the owner of the pool because there was ample signage and warnings that made it clear to swimmers that it would be unsafe to dive into water that shallow.
In the case of the coffee table, if there had been a warning on the coffee table (perhaps on the underside or in the instruction manual) that told the user explicitly not to stand on the coffee table, the plaintiff in the case outlined above would likely lose their case because they would have had ample warning that standing on the table is dangerous.
Alterations and Modifications
In some situations, plaintiffs may bring cases of product liability to court after they were injured from a product that they altered or modified. Here’s an example:
Let’s say that someone purchased a table saw to cut wood with. The table saw came with a guard that came down around the blade of the saw and was meant to protect the user while the blade spins in use. If the owner of the table saw removed the protective guard, proceeded to use the saw to cut wood, and was thereafter injured from the saw, this would be considered a situation where they modified or altered the product (the saw).
In a case like this, if the individual who was injured by the saw they modified brought their case to court and sued the manufacturer of the saw for product liability, the defendant (the manufacturer of the saw), would likely come back with a product misuse affirmative defense that claimed the plaintiff had altered or modified saw and therefore, their injuries were their own fault.
Whether or not the plaintiff in a case like this would ultimately win would likely depend on how good of a lawyer they had to represent them in court. It would also depend on the laws in their state.
In certain states, there is comparative negligence, for example. Comparative negligence refers to personal injuries that were partially caused by the plaintiff. For example, a plaintiff may deserve certain damages for their injuries because the defendant was partially at fault, but the plaintiff may have been partially at fault as well, which would take away from the total sum of compensation that they were initially suing for.
Hiring a Product Liability Attorney to Represent You
As you can see it is essential to hire a skilled and experienced attorney when taking any product liability case to court. Especially with large companies that manufacture or distribute products, professional legal defensive teams will often use the product misuse defense to avoid liability for personal injuries. If you don’t have an experienced lawyer on your side to defend your case, you may very well lose if the defendant cites product misuse as a defense.
If you have recently been injured because of a faulty product or a product that malfunctioned, you may deserve compensation for your injuries, pain and suffering, medical expenses, loss of consortium, loss of wages, and more. Speak with a reputable and experienced attorney in your area who can defend you in court.
AUTHOR: Farrar, Hennesy & Tanner, LLC
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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer. For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.