Product Liability Law: Protecting People from Defective Products

Product liability law allows a person who is injured by a dangerous or defective product to recover compensation for the injury. For example, a product that is defective due to a mistake made during the manufacturing process may pose an unreasonable danger to a person who uses the product, and if the defect causes in an injury to somebody who is using the product the manufacturer may be held liable.

Types of Product Defect

Allegations that a product is defective, and thus unsafe for use, fall into three broad categories:

  • Design Defects: A defect in the design of the product renders it unsafe.
  • Manufacturing Defects: A problem or mistake during the manufacture or assembly of a product, or the use of substandard materials or components during manufacture, causes the product to be unsafe for use.
  • Failure to Warn (Marketing Defects): Although the product is not inherently unsafe if properly used, the plaintiff alleges that the manner in which the product was marketed or the inadequacy of the products instructions, safety information and safety warnings created an undue risk to users due to dangers posed by the product that are not otherwise known to or reasonably identifiable by a typical user.

Who is Liable for Injuries Caused by Dangerous Product

Historically, most states allowed for a product liability claim to be brought against any company that was in the chain of commerce for a dangerous or defective product, from the manufacturer of the product or a defective component of the product, to a distributor, to the retailer who sold the product to the end user.

The theory was that it was more fair to hold an innocent distributor or retailer liable for a product-related injury than to risk that an injured person would be left uncompensated due to their inability to recover damages from a manufacturer. For example, a manufacturer may be located in a distant country where it is not easy to file a lawsuit, or may be insolvent or have gone out of business.

Under modern product liability law it is more common for the manufacturer to be liable, but for distributors and retailers to be able to avoid liability unless they knew or had reason to know that the product was unreasonably dangerous.

As product liability laws vary considerably by state, and even by the type of product that caused the injury, it is important to have a product liability claim reviewed by a lawyer who is experienced within this specialized field of law.

Theories of Liability

Product liability claims are normally based upon one of the following three theories of liability:

Negligence: Despite having a duty to provide a safe product to the end user, the defendant breached that duty by providing a product that it knew or should have known was unsafe, creating a foreseeable risk to the end user. As a result of the breach, the end user suffers an injury that is proximately caused by the defect, resulting in damages.

Strict Liability: When strict liability applies, the defendant in a product liability case may be held liable for injuries caused by a defective product even if it did not know and could not reasonably have known that the product was dangerous. However, even when strict liability applies a defendant may be able to raise defenses to the plaintiff's claim, such as assumption of risk or contributory negligence.

Breach of Warranty: A consumer claims that the defect in the product violated an express or implied warranty, rendering the product unfit for use as intended, and that the manufacturer is thus liable for injuries that result from the defect.

  • Express Warranty: The manufacturer's written warranty for the product;
  • Implied Warranty of Merchantability: The sale of goods creates a warranty that the goods are suitable for the particular purpose for which goods of the kind are normally used, and the goods will pass without objection in the trade.
  • Implied Warranty of Fitness: Even without an express warranty, a product that is sold must be reasonably fit for the purpose for which it is intended to be used;

If a manufacturer violates a safety regulation when manufacturing a product, and a defect results from that violation, that violation may be used as evidence of the manufacturer's negligence and in some jurisdictions will be sufficient to establish a negligence claim for an injury that results from the defect.

Elements of a Product Liability Claim

The specific elements of a claim will vary depending upon state law, and possibly also upon the nature of the allegedly defective product.

Claims Against Sellers

Under typical state law, in order to support a basic product liability claim against the seller of a defective product an injured person must prove the following elements:

  1. The defendant manufactured or sold a product that the plaintiff later used;
  2. The defendant is a commercial seller of the product;
  3. The plaintiff suffered an injury as a result of the use of the product;
  4. The product was defective at the time it was sold by the defendant; and
  5. The injury to the plaintiff was actually and proximately caused by the defect.

In some states, in order to be liable in a product liability case a retailer must have actual knowledge that a product is dangerous or defective at the time of the sale.

Defective Design Claims

To prove a claim for defective design, a plaintiff must typically prove all of the following:

  1. The defendant manufactured a product that the plaintiff later used;
  2. The defendant placed the product into the stream of commerce;
  3. Due to a defect in the design of the product, the product was unreasonably dangerous when used as intended; and
  4. The injury to the plaintiff was actually and proximately caused by the defect.

Defenses to Product Liability Claims

A defendant in a liability case may potentially present a wide range of defenses to the claim:

  • Statute of Limitations: A defendant may claim that due to the passage of time between its allegedly wrongful act or omission or the date of the injury, and the time that litigation is commenced, the plaintiff's claim is time barred.
  • Statute of Repose: Under some state and federal laws, a product liability claim may not be brought for certain products after the passage of a defined number of years from the date of manufacture or, in the case of a defective building or structure, the date of substantial completion of that structure. For example, product liability cases involving certain defective aircraft are covered by a ten year statute of repose.
  • Assumption of Risk: Although the product caused an injury, the injured user was aware of the risk of injury, yet knowingly and voluntarily accepted that risk when using the product.
  • Negligence by the User: A manufacturer may argue that the person who was injured by the product was negligent in the use of the product, and as a result of the negligence that damages should be reduced or that the person should not be allowed to recover any damages at all.
  • Preemption: Where a product is subject to federal safety regulations, federal law may preempt state product liability laws and prevent a successful lawsuit. Similarly, some states permit the defendant in a product liability lawsuit to prove that the product was in compliance with those regulations at the time of sale as a full or partial defense to a product liability claim.
  • Consumer Expectations: In some jurisdictions, under the consumer expectations test, a defendant cannot be held liable for an injury from a defective product if a reasonable consumer, using the product in a reasonable manner, would not find the product to be defective.
  • Unavoidable Danger: Some jurisdictions permit a defendant to argue that, although the product does pose some risk to the user, the utility of the product and its design outweigh the risk to the user. As a simple example, an axe or a chainsaw cannot be made to be completely safe to all users, but tools of that nature serve an important purpose that outweighs their inherent danger.
  • Improper Use: A manufacturer may claim that the injury resulted from an improper use of the product that was not reasonably foreseeable.
  • Alteration: The injury was caused by an alteration of the product for which the defendant should not be held liable. For example, a user may remove safety guards in order to make a power tool easier to use, and the defendant may claim that the alteration should prevent it from being held liable for a resulting injury.

Foreseeable Misuse

When an alteration of misuse of a product is reasonably foreseeable to the defendant, the injured plaintiff may be able to overcome those defenses by arguing that the defendant knew that people were using the product in an unsafe manner, and should have improved the design of the product in order to prevent the foreseeable misuse or to improve the product's safety when misused in a foreseeable manner.

Market Share Liability

In some product liability claims, where the source of an allegedly defective product cannot be identified with certainty, a defendant may defend against the claim by asserting that the plaintiff has failed to show that the defendant is responsible for the product that caused the plaintiff's injury. In some cases, where multiple manufacturers produced the dangerous product, courts may impose market share liability, pursuant to which a defendant may be held liable for an injury in proportion to the defendant's share of the market for the product in the jurisdiction where the injury arose.

For example, market share liability may arise in environmental injury cases, such as injuries that result from asbestos exposure. It may also result in a pharmaceutical liability claim, alleging injury from an unreasonably dangerous medication, where multiple manufacturers produced the medication that caused the injury at the time the plaintiff was exposed to the medication.

Copyright © 2018 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 Apr 6, 2018.