Product Liability Law

Guide to Defective Products Law

What is Product Liability Law?

Product liability law provides legal recourse for victims of defective products. Individuals who are injured by an item that was improperly designed, manufactured, or packaged can seek compensation under several different theories, all of which fall under this area of the law. Most claimants in product liability cases will attempt to recover under the theory of strict liability. Only where the elements of strict liability are not met will claimants resort to the alternative theories of negligence, breach of warranty, or fraudulent misrepresentation.

Strict liability is the preferred theory for asserting a defective product claim because it does not require a showing of fault. That is, there is no need for the plaintiff to prove that the defendant did anything wrong. All that the plaintiff must establish is that the product that caused his or her injury was defective when it left the hands of the defendant. Once this is established, the burden of proof shifts to the manufacturer or other defendant to attempt to show why it should not be held responsible.

Potential Claimants and Liable Entities

Of course, not everyone hurt by a manufactured item is allowed to bring a strict liability lawsuit to recover damages. In order to bring a claim, it must have been foreseeable that someone in the plaintiff's position could have been hurt by the defective product. Foreseeable victims are not limited to customers who actually purchased the item. Thus, bystanders who happen to be near a product when it malfunctions can bring a claim for their injuries. But people hurt in odd scenarios that the manufacturer never could have anticipated cannot.

In order to bring a claim for strict liability, the plaintiff must also have been making an "anticipated use" of the product. An anticipated use is a broad classification, and it can include activities beyond the intended use of the item. For example, chairs are meant for sitting, yet someone hurt while standing on a defective chair can bring a claim, because it is common knowledge that people occasionally stand on chairs. The same is true of a driver injured by a car that malfunctioned at 80 mph, since car companies should anticipate that drivers might exceed the speed limit.

A typical product liability case based on strict liability will name multiple defendants. Basically, the plaintiff can sue everyone in the chain of distribution from the time the product was conceived until it was purchased by the user who was injured. Liable entities can include design companies, parts manufacturers, assembly plants, marketing firms, suppliers, and retailers. The test is whether the entity is a commercial seller who regularly deals in goods of that type. Accordingly, someone who unknowingly sells a defective product at a garage sale will not be liable.

Establishing that a Product is Defective

The cornerstone of a product liability case is proving the existence of a defect that made the product dangerous. To understand this element, it helps to consider the issue of defectiveness in light of the affirmative duties the law imposes on commercial manufacturers and sellers of products. First, they must design products to be safe. If the plaintiff can show that an alternative design is available and economically feasible, the product responsible for the injury will be said to have a design defect. This type of defect exists even when the product is made as intended.

Sometimes a product is designed to be safe, but the particular item that caused harm to the plaintiff was not made correctly. This is known as a manufacturing defect. These situations involve the "one in a million" product that came off the factory floor in a defective and dangerous condition, without the defendant noticing.

Even if a product is designed and manufactured to be as safe as possible, it may still be inherently dangerous. Dangerous products can be sold, but the purchaser must receive proper instructions and warnings. The manufacturer's failure to satisfy this duty to warn is yet another way a product can be found defective. It is often referred to as a marketing or packaging defect.

Additional Theories of Liability

While strict liability is the first choice of products liability claimants, it is not the only means for obtaining compensation. Entities in the chain of distribution of a defective product can also be held liable for negligence if they acted carelessly and the plaintiff was injured as a result. A product may also be covered by express or implied warranties, the breach of which can form the basis for a lawsuit. There are also instances of manufacturers and sellers intentionally misrepresenting the characteristics of their products. A plaintiff who relied on the defendant's assertion that the product was safe may have a claim for common law fraud.

Choosing a Products Liability Attorney

Litigating a product liability case requires not only the ability to make sense of complex technical data, but also the skill to explain a product's defect to the jury in common sense terms. If you have been hurt by a dangerous product, take care to select a law firm with a proven history of success in this specialized area of the law.


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