When a Manufacturer is Responsible for Personal Injuries
Accidents and injuries happen all the time. Some of them aren’t caused by the person or people directly involved -- they’re caused by a defective product. Negligent drivers cause most vehicle accidents, but one could be caused by a defective part in the car. Lawsuits covering situations where a defective product caused property damage, physical injuries or deaths are known as product liability lawsuits.
These types of claims cover products we use every day.
- Vehicles are famous for product liability cases, most recently lethal Takata air bags that inflated with too much force, shooting metal fragments into drivers and passengers. SUVs were well known for deadly roll-over accidents, in part because defective Firestone tires could blow, causing the driver to lose control of the vehicle.
- Medications with serious side effects and medical devices like artificial knees that do more harm than good are the subject of product liability lawsuits.
- Toys that pose choking hazards, and Ikea furniture that’s easy to tip over, have also injured and killed children.
What is product liability?
Liability is the fact that a party may be held legally and financially responsible for an injury, death or property damage. Product liability is the liability of parties along the chain of manufacture, distribution and sale of a product for harm caused by that product. This includes the manufacturer of component parts, an assembling manufacturer, a wholesaler and the seller.
Injured users of products containing inherent defects -- whether they are the purchaser, someone to whom the product was loaned or given, or an injured bystander -- could be plaintiffs (those filing the lawsuit) in a products liability claim. You may think of a product as a manufactured, mechanical item. But depending on the circumstances, a product liability case could also cover a defective home, cigarettes, medications or even a dangerous animal bought as a pet.
What makes a product defective?
The plaintiff has the burden of proving the product that caused the injury is dangerously defective in some way. That condition may be established in at least one way, and the product could be defective in multiple ways, including defective design, manufacturing and marketing/warning.
- Design problems make the product dangerous. The plans or designs for it make the product inherently dangerous. It may be very well made and have sufficient components, but a design flaw can make the product hazardous.
- Manufacturing defects happen because of the construction or production of the item. It may be well designed, but because of a manufacturing flaw or sloppy quality control, using the product is hazardous.
- Defects in marketing cover situations where there are improper or inadequate instructions and failures to warn consumers of hidden dangers. The product may be safe if it’s used as intended; but if a party advertises, markets and sells it for a use that wasn’t intended by the designer, and as a result the product is dangerous and causes injury, this could be the basis of a lawsuit. If a hazard is known by a defendant (the party being sued) but not included in any warnings, the consumer may not be able to make an informed decision as to whether or not to buy it and if the product is purchased can’t take steps to protect himself.
How does a product liability lawsuit work?
These types of lawsuits can be based on a number of legal theories, including negligence, strict liability, or breach of warranty of fitness, depending on the facts of the case and the laws of the jurisdiction where the lawsuit is filed. There is no federal product liability law, and it varies from state to state.
Product liability cases are generally strict liability lawsuits. This means liability doesn’t depend on the degree of carefulness or negligence by the defendant. A defendant can be held accountable for injuries if it is shown that the product was put into the marketplace, is defective and unreasonably dangerous for its intended use. The degree of care exercised by a manufacturer or supplier doesn’t matter -- if a product defect causes harm, a defendant could be held liable for it.
As part of a lawsuit, in addition to strict product liability the complaint may also allege negligence, in case a fact finder (a judge or jury) finds product liability law doesn’t apply. To give a plaintiff the best chance of compensation, a defective product case may also claim negligence caused the injury:
- The defendant owed the plaintiff a legal duty or obligation to do something or refrain from doing something.
- The defendant failed in that obligation or breached that duty, and the breach was the factual and legal cause of the accident and injury.
- The plaintiff suffered an injury as a result.
- The defendant is legally obligated to compensate the plaintiff for those injuries.
These cases can be highly complicated, both legally and factually. A lot of time and energy is spent learning about the product, whether it actually is defective and, if so, how. Usually experts need to get involved to test the product or research it so an educated opinion can be given in court about the product, whether it’s defective, why it’s defective and how it caused the plaintiff’s injuries. These types of lawsuits can also be class action cases, where anywhere from dozens to thousands of consumers may be involved.
Insurance companies normally represent defendants in these cases, provide legal defenses and pay settlements or verdicts, which can be substantial. In 2015, the average product liability jury verdict in favor of the plaintiff was $4.9 million, according to the Insurance Information Institute, so these types of cases are normally defended very strongly.
We take our health and safety for granted. We purchase and use products without thinking they may harm us or others. We assume that if something was dangerously defective a company wouldn’t sell it, or the federal government wouldn’t allow its sale. But we encounter potentially dangerous products all the time. If one day you’re injured because you had the bad luck of using a defective product, there’s a body of law that could help you and your family receive compensation for your injuries.