When you purchase a consumer product, you assume that all the necessary research has been done, and that appropriate measures have been taken, to ensure your safety when using the goods. Unfortunately, companies have a financial incentive to cut corners and maximize their profits. In addition, design, testing, and manufacturing are often rushed in order to bring a new product to market before competitors do so. Such practices can result in dangerous product defects. Fortunately, when a defective product causes you injury, you have a right to bring legal action to recover your losses.
Product liability refers to a type of legal claim for personal injuries caused by the use of, or exposure to, a dangerous or defective product. A product liability claim is a type of personal injury action, where you can recover compensation for both economic and non-economic losses, including lost work income, unreimbursed medical expenses, physical pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, loss of companionship or consortium, and property loss or damage.
The initial concepts related to product liability law initially evolved in England. For centuries, the governing legal principle related to dangerous or defective products was “caveat emptor,” or “let the buyer beware.” Under that rule, a person injured by a poorly designed or manufactured product had no means to recover for their losses.
In the late 1800s, English courts started to recognize an “implied warranty of merchantability,” and American courts followed suit. The warranty initially had limited application, as it required “privity of contract” between the manufacturer and the injured party, which meant that an injured person had a legal claim only if they purchased the dangerous or defective product directly from the manufacturer. In the mid-20th century, in recognition of the explosion of consumer goods available on the market, American courts began to expand the rights of consumers to recover damages from manufacturers of defective products, even in cases where privity of contract was lacking.
A significant change in product liability law came in the 1960s, as states began to enact statutes imposing “strict liability” for product liability. The concept of strict liability eliminates the requirement that the injured party prove the manufacturer or marketer was negligent in designing, marketing, or manufacturing the product. California instituted the first strict liability statute in 1963. Most states have since followed.
A product liability claim can be based on three different legal theories, depending on the facts and the law of the state where the claim is brought: negligence, strict liability, and breach of warranty. A product liability lawsuit may include claims under one, two, or all three different theories.
A product liability claim based on negligence can allege that the product was defective in one or more of the following ways:
For a claim based on negligence, the plaintiff must show all of the following:
Most, but not all, U.S. states allow strict liability claims in defective product cases. In the simplest terms, strict liability is liability without proof of fault. Strict liability can be imposed when it can be demonstrated that a product had inherent defects that caused injury or loss. While a negligence claim requires the plaintiff to demonstrate that the at-fault party failed to act reasonably in designing, manufacturing, or marketing the product, a strict liability claim requires only proof that a product was brought to market that contained a dangerous defect. The plaintiff need not prove how the product came to be defective, only that it was inherently defective and caused the plaintiff to suffer injury when using the product as it was intended to be used.
A warranty is essentially a guarantee that a product will meet a certain level of quality and reliability. Depending on the law of the state where the claim is brought, there are two types of warranties that might apply in a product liability lawsuit: implied warranties and express warranties.
A number of defenses can be raised in a product liability lawsuit. Among the most common that might be applicable, depending on the facts of the case, are the following:
Closely tied to this last defense is the concept of comparative negligence, which applies when the injured party has acted in some way that contributed to causing the injury. In most states, if a product was indeed defective, but was also used by a person in a way not intended by the manufacturer, then the injured person and the manufacturer are both considered to be partially at fault. Applying the principle of comparative negligence, the court apportions a percentage of fault to the injured person and reduces any damage award accordingly.
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