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COMMENTARY: The Corporate Reaction to Defective Product Litigation

by Robert A. Schwartz, Attorney at Law
Sept. 26, 2007

SchwartzNine-month-old Liam John died of asphyxiation in his crib on April 11, 2005. The drop rail had detached from its plastic track, creating a gap through which Liam slipped feet-first. Instead of falling to the floor, which could have been bad enough, Liam’s head became stuck between the rail and the mattress.

Neither the manufacturer nor the Consumer Product Safety Commission warned consumers about this potentially fatal flaw in Simplicity cribs. The parents did nothing wrong and did not contribute to their infant’s death. The questions are what the manufacturer knew about this defect and when it knew.

After Liam’s civil suit was resolved and the matter publicized, the manufacturer received complaints about the crib’s rails. Warnings were not issued, however, until two more infants died. Further, nearly three years after Liam’s death and after Liam’s civil products liability lawsuit was settled, the commission recalled approximately 1 million of these cribs.

The problem is two-fold: The manufacturer either did not test the crib’s safety or knew of the defects but marketed the product anyway. The inability of Liam’s parents to get sufficient answers from the manufacturer forced them to file a civil lawsuit.
That civil suit most likely started as all product liability suits do:

  • The manufacturer denies its product was defective.
  • It denies all allegations to that effect made in the lawsuit.
  • It blames the plaintiffs for causing their own damages.
  • It refuses to settle the case and forces the plaintiffs to endure lengthy litigation.

The frivolity of the manufacturer’s defense throughout litigation ultimately gave way to a settlement, the amount of which remains confidential. The settlement states that it is not an admission of wrongdoing by the manufacturer.

What increases litigation time and costs and clogs the courts are these litigious practices of corporate America. “Deny and delay” is its modus operandi; its battle cry is that plaintiffs are responsible for their own losses, injuries and damages. Corporate America forces plaintiffs to prove their cases in the courtroom instead of resolving them in the conference room.

While corporate America should resolve civil litigation earlier, its denials have ultimately resulted in a safer American workplace, playground and home. Decades of civil litigation regarding product liability has resulted in clear, understandable safety warnings and modifications on virtually all machinery, firearms, food, drugs and household products.

Neither Liam’s family nor any other product-liability plaintiff ask for acknowledgment for these safety warnings and modifications. The trial lawyers who maneuver civil cases through the maze of corporate America’s denials and delays aren’t as fortunate. For their commitment to righting these wrongs and seeking justice, they are villainized. Corporate America surely will continue to manufacture products that injure or kill people, and trial lawyers will continue to fight for the victims.

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