Product Liability Law - Protecting People from Defective Products

Product liability law governs the liability of manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors, and vendors for damages caused by dangerous or defective products. The goal of product liability laws is to help protect consumers from dangerous products, while holding manufacturers, distributors, and retailers responsible for putting into the marketplace products that they knew or should have known were dangerous or defective. Depending upon the jurisdiction, the liability of the various parties involved as the product passes from the manufacturer to the consumer will vary.

Product liability frequently involves retail items, but can extend to pretty much anything that can be sold. It is possible, for example, for a product liability action to arise from a defect in real estate such as a leaky wall or poorly installed vapor barrierthat causes mold to grow inside a wall, or from a product used in real estate, such as defective siding.

Theories of Product Liability

Product liability claims may be brought under a number of theories, depending upon the facts of the case and the governing law.

  • Design Defects: Liability arises from a mistake or oversight in the design of a product, which makes it dangerous when used as intended, or when used for another reasonably foreseeable purpose.

  • Manufacturing Defects: Liability arises from a defect that results from the manufacturing process.

  • Marketing Defects: A marketing defect involves such issues as inadequate warning labels or instructions, which, for example, prevent a user from recognizing a defect in the product, or from being aware of how to safely use or apply the product.

Proving a Product Liability Case

The elements of what a plaintiff must prove to prevail in a product liability action will also vary with the jurisdiction. It may be possible for a plaintiff to pursue more than one theory of liability.

  • Negligence: In a negligence action, the plaintiff must typically demonstrate that the parties responsible for placing the product into commerce had a duty to provide goods fit for their foreseeable uses, would have detected the defect with the exercise of reasonable care in the design, manufacture, or inspection process, failed to meet its obligations, and that the plaintiff was injured by the product as a result of the defect while engaged in a foreseeable use of the product.

  • Strict Liability: Under a strict liability standard, once the plaintiff establishes that a product is defective, liability results from that fact alone no matter how much care was applied during design, manufacture, marketing, distribution and sale.

  • Breach of Warranty: A warranty is essentially a contract of fitness between a manufacturer or vendor and its customer. Under a breach of express warranty theory, the plaintiff alleges the violation of the actual written warranty associated with a product. Under a breach of implied warranty theory, the plaintiff alleges that although there is no express warranty or the defect alleged is not covered by the express warranty, a defect in the goods renders them unfit for the purpose intended.

State Law Variations

Many jurisdictions have created comprehensive product liability statutes that govern litigation over injuries caused by defective products. Some states adhere more closely to a strict liability model, while some have very narrow product liability standards and place a significant burden of proof on a plaintiff. Some may defer to the safety determination made by a federal agency, such as the FDA's review of pharmaceutical products, and shield manufacturers from defects unless the plaintiff can demonstrate that they misled the reviewing agency. They may also immunize parties beyond the point of manufacture, unless the plaintiff can demonstrate that they had actual knowledge of a product defect.

Copyright © 2003 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on Jan 17, 2015.