Products Liability Basics
Products liability is the area of tort law that deals with a manufacturer's or seller's liability for injuries suffered by a purchaser, user, or bystander as a result of a defective product. Products liability may involve products ranging from the low-tech, such as pajamas, to the high-tech, such as antilock brakes. Products liability is premised on the principle that a person who introduces a product into the stream of commerce owes a duty of care, not only to the person who first purchases the product, but also to anyone else who might foreseeably come into contact with it.
Types of Liability
Products liability is generally based on one of three theories: strict liability, negligence, or breach of warranty. Most states impose strict liability on the manufacturer or seller of a product that is defective in a way that makes the product unreasonably dangerous. Strict liability means that the manufacturer or seller is liable for injuries caused by an unreasonably dangerous defective product, even if he or she used all possible care in the preparation and sale of the product.
In states that do not impose strict liability for defective products, aninjured person can recover for injuries caused by a defective product if they can show that the manufacturer was negligent, or breached a warranty. Negligence means that the manufacturer or seller did not act with reasonable care to ensure the safety of the product. The difference between strict liability and negligence is that, under a negligence standard, a person will not be liable for a defect if he or she took all reasonable care to avoid or detect the defect, while under strict liability, if there was an unreasonably dangerous defect in the product, no amount of care will constitute a defense.
Even in states that impose strict liability, an injured party can recover on a theory of negligence if the evidence will support it. Which theory is relied on is important in the calculation of damages: damages are limited to compensatory damages in cases of strict liability or breach or warranty, while both compensatory and punitive damages may be available in negligence cases.
Types of Defects
To recover in a products liability action, an injured party must first establish that a product was defective when it left the defendant's control. There are three types of defects.
- Manufacturing Defect. A manufacturing defect is one that is a result of the way a product was made, rather than the way it was designed or labeled. For example, if a manufacturer failed to treat a pair of pajamas with fire-retardant chemicals as designed, the pajamas have a manufacturing defect. Courts will usually consider a product defective if it does not meet the consumer's reasonable expectations as to its characteristics. A stepladder that breaks when stepped on is an example of a defective product. Manufacturing defects, design defects, or inadequate warnings can make a product defective. In addition, a product may be considered defective if it fails to meet minimum legal standards for a product. However, the fact that a product meets minimum legal standards does not necessarily protect a manufacturer or seller from liability.
- Design Defect. A design defect is one that is a result of the way a product was designed, rather than the way it was made or labeled. For example, if a company manufactures antilock brakes which, because of a design flaw, will lock when wet, the antilock brakes have a design defect.
- Failure to Warn. Finally, a product may also be defective if a manufacturer fails to adequately warn about non-apparent risks involved in using a product. The impact of failure-to-warn claims can be seen in the multitude of warning labels affixed to all sorts of consumer products.
EXAMPLE - HAIR DRYER
KEEP AWAY FROM WATERDANGER -AS WITH MOST ELECTRICAL APPLIANCES, ELECTRICAL PARTS IN THIS DRYER AREELECTRICALLY LIVE EVEN WHEN SWITCH IS OFF. TO REDUCE RISK OF DEATH BY ELECTRIC SHOCK: 1 ALWAYS "UNPLUG IT" AFTER USE. 2 DO NOT PLACE OR STORE WHERE DRYER CAN FALL OR BE PULLED INTO TUB, TOILET, OR SINK. 3 DO NOT USE WHILE BATHING. 4 DO NOT USE NEAR OR PLACE IN WATER. 5 IF DRYER FALLS INTO WATER, UNPLUG IMMEDIATELY. DO NOT REACH INTO WATER.