Product Liability Law is a broad definition for a specific area of the law. It includes, but is not limited to, the legal rules consisting of who’s responsible for defective or inherently dangerous products or services provided to the public. Defective products used in a reasonable manner but still cause injury are never the fault of the consumer.
Consumers buy products with the inherent understanding that what they’re spending money on is safe. Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of injuries each year are caused by products with both known and unknown defects in the United States. That’s why Product Liability Law exists, and why experienced Personal Injury lawyers familiarize themselves with this area of law. Because the products we buy are normally found to be safe and effective, it may not seem like this area of law is practiced every day by Personal Injury lawyers. However, it’s no less important, and in fact is more common than one would think. When a product is found to be defective, the ramifications it can cause are wide ranging and can be devastating for those affected, resulting in pain and suffering that may require legal action. When multiple victims have been harmed by a product or service, Class Action litigation may be pursued as well.
Product Liability Law in Personal Injury is a whole different “market”
This area of law differs from the broader aspect of Personal Injury and the rules set forth for product liability occasionally simplifies the legal process for the injured party’s lawyer to recover damages. That doesn’t mean, though, that a manufacturer won’t first attempt to send their team of highly experienced lawyers to fight the victim’s lawyer, making false claims about the victim being at-fault for the product’s defect. This is why no victim who has been harmed by a defective product should ever attempt to take on a manufacturer alone. While the laws are in place to benefit the victim, going up against a team of a corporation’s lawyers employed to protect the products sold to consumers alone can leave a victim feeling helpless.
Product Liability Law relates to a seller or manufacturer being held accountable (“liable”) for selling a defective good or service to the consumer. Specifically, product defects are the responsibility of every seller of the product within the chain of command.
Privity of contract
Products are required by law to meet the needs and expectations of the consumer under “normal use” circumstances. “Normal use” means, if a consumer is using the product the way a manufacturer intended, and they sustain injuries as a result of every day use per the item’s instructions (for example, a crockpot sparking a house fire when its settings were properly used to cook a meal according to instructions provided in the box).
In the case of defective food products, serious and sometimes fatal consequences can occur as a result of improper labeling. Allergens found in consumer products must be clearly labeled for those who must avoid peanuts, shellfish, eggs, or dairy. Without proper labeling, a company may be held liable if a consumer eats a product not generally known to have peanuts, but has come into contact with them during manufacture. The product must be labeled for any possible cross-contamination. Life threatening anaphylaxis has occurred as a result of improper food labeling.
The historical precedence of “privity of contract”
A relationship known in Personal Injury and several other areas of the law as “privity of contract” had to exist between the consumer that sustained injuries from the product and the supplier of that product. This, historically, is where the precedent for Product Liability Law and trying cases successfully after a victim becomes injured by a defective product, comes from.
“Privity of contract” is defined within the context of law as:
“[…]Privity of Contract refers to relationship between the parties to a contract which allows them to sue each other but prevents a third party from doing so. It is a doctrine of contract law that prevents any person from seeking the enforcement of a contract, or suing on its terms, unless they are a party to that contract. As a general rule, a contract cannot confer rights or impose obligations arising under it on any person except the parties to it.”
So, who then, in the end, is responsible for a defective product or piece of equipment that causes serious and irreversible bodily injury (burns, amputations) or a traumatic brain or spinal cord injury? That liability quite literally lies in the product being bought and sold within what’s known as a “marketplace” setting and the Chain of Distribution. Read on to learn more about how these fit into a successful product liability claim.
The Chain of Distribution means responsibility from the top down
Product Defect Liability can fall on any party in the product’s Chain of Distribution. Usually, these parties are found to be:
- The manufacturer
- The manufacturer of component [third-party] parts for the product
- A wholesaler who distributes the product
- The party that assembles, installs, or inspects the product
- The retail store where the consumer purchased the product also known as the “merchant” or the “marketplace” as we established above
Difference in product defects: design, manufacturing, or marketing?
There are three separate areas of product defect that we must separate to get a better understanding of how a product sold to a consumer can become so defective as to cause a victim extreme bodily injury or worse, a wrongful death.
- Design defect: this kind of defect is found within the product before assembly, from the very beginning. The manufacturer may know about it before it’s even sent to a factory. The liability in this instance may be extreme in some cases, if the manufacturer knew the product could cause harm as-is, but chose to manufacture the item anyway. This type of design defect is caused by something unsafe from the start, within the initial design of the product. An experienced lawyer will be able to show a judge using demonstrative aides, how this occurred and that the manufacturer was aware of the problem.
- Manufacturer’s defect: these occur over the course of the product’s assembly and/or manufacture and may not be noticed until a consumer uses the product and sustains an injury; however, quality assurance protocols are put in place to avoid this, and when these are skipped or rushed, a manufacturer’s defect could be the end result.
- Marketing defect: a marketing defect is a flaw in the way a product is presented (marketed) to the consumer either via commercial, packaging, or print advertising. This type of marketing failure could be anything from improper labeling (allowing the consumer to think the product does more than it’s capable of), lack of instructions (the consumer is forced to play a guessing game of how to put the product together, sustaining injuries as a result), or insufficient safety warnings in the package (fire hazard, small parts to be kept away from children, wall mounting required, etc).
Determining responsibility: “res ipsa loquitur” for the legal jargon savvy
The legal principle of “res ipsa loquitur” places the burden of proof in some Product Liability cases on the defendant and their legal representatives. In the case of a defective product specifically, these companies have large teams of experienced lawyers that will attempt to fight injured victims, refusing to pay what’s owed initially. The Latin phrase “res ipsa loquitur” translates to “the thing speaks for itself”. This indicates that the defect in the product would not have existed unless someone acted negligently in its manufacture or distribution. This negligence does not fall upon the victim who sustained an injury, but rather the company who designed or created the product for the consumer, who reasonably expected it to work as intended.
When “res ipsa loquitur” is applied successfully, the plaintiff’s lawyer is not required to prove how, exactly, the defendant acted in a negligent manner because, “the thing speaks for itself” and the judge will be highly familiar with this principle, as will an experienced Personal Injury lawyer. The defendant’s team of lawyers is required to prove that they did not act negligently anywhere in the design, manufacturing, or marketing of the product that caused injury.
Further reading on Product Liability Law
In one of our first Law Resource installments on the subject of Product Liability Law, we delved into proving fault in a product liability case and we further explored what to do when faced with unsafe goods or services in our daily lives. This, as well as common defense in product liability was covered at length in our successful April 2018 writeup Defective is More Than “Doesn’t Work”.