Five Things to Know About Proving a Product Liability Claim

Written by Christi Hayes and Fact Checked by The Law Dictionary Staff  

Few people would dispute the fact that lawnmowers can inflict severe injuries on their users, but you see them being used each day without incident by homeowners and landscapers. If designed, manufactured and used properly, lawnmowers are safe to use. However, a product that is manufactured or designed improperly can cause injury to its user. Likewise, the failure of a manufacturer to provide instructions for a product's safe use can result in an otherwise safe product causing injury when improperly used.

1.There are three types of product liability cases

Product liability is an area of the law devoted to obtaining compensation for victims from the manufacturers and suppliers of dangerous products. There are three types of product liability claims that an attorney can bring on behalf of an injured client:

 

  • Manufacturing defects
  • Design defects
  • Inadequate warnings or instructions

A car equipped with an airbag that explodes and sends metal fragments into an unsuspecting motorist or passenger, a child's playground set that is assembled with screws that are not strong enough to prevent it from collapsing when children are on it and a glass frying pan lid that shatters when exposed to high temperatures are examples of defectively manufactured products.

Products might be manufactured to the highest standards, but a defect in the design could cause people to be injured. Sport utility vehicles with high rooflines that cause them to be unstable and prone to flipping over during sharp turns is an example of a product liability through a design defect. Another example might be a cellphone battery that gets so hot during use that it can explode or catch on fire because of the design of the phone and a the locking mechanism on a multi-position ladder that fails to lock properly to prevent the ladder from collapsing are examples of design defects.

Product liability claims is one of the reasons you see warning labels on some products that were not there before. Most people know that sticking your hand under a running lawnmower will probably end with you being taken to a hospital, but how many people reach into the discharge chute to clear grass without realizing how close their hand can be to the moving blade?

The answer is simply that enough people are injured because they are unaware of hazards that most people consider to be obvious that manufacturers have taken to posting labels and warning decals on their products. The failure of a manufacturer to warn consumers of a danger, no matter how obvious it might be, could be the basis for a product liability claim for damages.

2.What strict liability means in product liability cases

If you are injured through the conduct of another party, you normally must present evidence proving negligence in order to receive compensation. A person's carelessness can be the type of negligent conduct giving rise to a claim for damages, but product liability claims usually do not lend themselves to proving negligence against the manufacturer of a product.

It would be impossible in some cases for a consumer injured by a product to prove that its manufacturer was negligent or careless in its production process. It would also be impossible for a consumer to test a product before purchasing it to verify that it will perform as expected and be free of defects.

The concept of strict liability has been developed in the law of personal injury cases to allow a victim to recover when his or her injuries are the result of a defective or dangerous product. Strict liability allows someone injured by a product to sue its manufacturer or seller without having to prove negligence. A product liability claim based on strict liability requires the existence of the following conditions:

 

  • An unreasonably dangerous defect caused by the design, manufacture or handling of the product before it was delivered to the consumer
  • An injury caused by the defect while the victim was using the product as it was sold to be used
  • No changes were made to the product by the consumer that could substantially alter its condition

A victim suffering a serious injury caused by a defective product that meets all three of these conditions is relieved from the task of proving negligence in order to recover damages.

3.Consumers cannot add to the dangers or continue using it after noting the defect

A defense that frequently arises in defective product claims is an alteration of the product by the consumer. The protective device on a table saw that prevents your hand from coming into contact with the blade is there to protect you from injury. If you remove the blade guard, the manufacturer might defend against you lawsuit seeking damages by claiming that the alteration to the product, as opposed to the product itself, was the cause of your injuries.

Your failure to follow instructions that accompany a product could provide a defense to the manufacturer if you are injured. Manufacturers can warn and inform you about a product's hazards, but it is up to you to heed those warnings.

Consumers who purchase a product and become aware of a defect cannot continue to use it and then sue for damages when an accident happens. For example, recall of defective automobile airbags that exploded without warning sending metal fragments throughout the passenger compartment of the vehicles in which they were installed was given widespread coverage in the national media. A car owner who is aware of the recall and the dangers related to the product could be prevented from relying upon strict liability if he or she continues to drive the car without having the defective part replaced and is injured by an exploding airbag.

4.How to use breach of warranty in product liability cases

Warranties that may support a product liability claim are either express or implied. Express warranties are written statements by the manufacturer regarding the use of the product. For example, if a consumer purchases a deep fryer and the paperwork delivered with it by the manufacturer states it is safe to use to fry a frozen turkey, a person injured when the frozen turkey causes the hot oil to splatter and severely injure the user, a claim for compensation could be based on breach of the express warranty that the product was safe as used.

An implied warranty is unwritten and is based upon the expectation of the consumer who purchases it. An implied warranty of merchantability means that the product will perform in much the same manner as other similar products. Implicit in the warranty of merchantability is that products of this particular type do not cause injury to people when used for the purpose for which they are intended.

For example, someone purchasing a new, flat screen television may safely assume, based upon the implied warranty of merchantability, that the television will not cause a fire when plugged into a wall outlet. The fact that it did cause a fire could be the basis for a product liability claim based upon a breach of the implied warranty of merchantability.

An implied warranty of fitness differs from a warranty of merchantability because it is not a general warranty given to all users of the product. In cases based upon an implied warranty of fitness, the consumer makes the seller of the product aware of the purpose or intended use of the product and relies upon the knowledge and expertise of the seller to recommend a product that will meet the stated need of the consumer.

This might occur when a consumer asks a dealer to recommend a breathing apparatus to product the user from the harmful effects of chemical fumes. If the consumer is injured because the breathing apparatus was only for dust and not fumes, this could be a breach of the implied warranty of fitness.

Whether a claim is based upon an express or implied warranty, an injured party must be able to prove the existence of a warranty, the failure of the product to conform to the terms of the warranty and an injury caused by the failure of the product to perform as promised.

5.Statutes of limitations could prevent a victim from recovering compensation

States set time limits on how long an injured party has to file a product liability claim. Some states have statutes of limitations that could be as short as two years. Once the statute of limitations expires, an injured party loses his or her right to sue.

Computing when a statute of limitations starts to run in a product liability case can be a challenge because some states start running on the day the injury happens, but other states recognize that a person might discover the injury for several years as in cases involving the inhalation of fumes and apply a date of discovery rule. The statute of limitations begins to run from the date of discovery of the injury.

The best course of action to take if you believe you have been injured by a defective product is to speak to an attorney. An attorney can advise you about the product liability laws in your state and how they apply to the facts of your case.

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