Have you ever been injured because the product you were using didn’t function the way it was supposed to? You may have needed a “product liability” lawyer. This area of the law involves liability on the part of a manufacturer or seller for harm caused by defective products.
What Is Product Liability?
Product liability is a legal practice area devoted to obtaining compensation for victims from the manufacturers and suppliers of products which are designed, manufactured, or marketed defectively. It falls under “tort” or personal injury law. These cases are brought under state laws and are subject to ‘statutes of limitations,’ meaning you have to file the lawsuit within a certain amount of time after the injury occurs (or was first discovered).
For example, few people would dispute the fact that lawnmowers are inherently dangerous machines, but they are used every day, often without incident. If designed, manufactured, and used properly, lawnmowers can be safe. However, shortcomings in one of those three areas can lead to injuries and lawsuits.
Sometimes the defect that leads to damage has its root in the first step — design. Examples of defective designs include:
- Sport utility vehicles with high rooflines that make them unstable and prone to flipping during sharp turns
- Cell phones that are not designed to contain batteries that get hot during use, so the phones explode or catch fire
If a product is designed and used properly, but still causes damage, the problem could be in faulty manufacturing. Examples of defective manufacturing include:
- A car equipped with an airbag that sends out metal fragments when it explodes because of the way it was installed
- A playground set assembled with screws that are not strong enough to prevent it from collapsing when children are on it
Not everyone recognizes hazards right away, so manufacturers provide instructions and warning labels for potentially harmful products. The following are examples of products with inadequate warnings or instructions:
- A lawnmower without a warning that using your hand to clear grass out of the discharge chute puts you at risk of being injured by the moving blade
- A hair dryer without a warning that getting the product wet can result in electrocution
Theories of Liability
In many states, manufacturers or others in the product chain are liable for defective products even if they acted reasonably — this is known as “strict liability.” The other theories of liability are ‘negligence,’ breach of ‘express warranty,’ and breach of ‘implied warranty.’
Strict Liability vs. Product Liability
In a personal injury case, a plaintiff (the person who files the lawsuit) usually has to prove the defendant (the person being sued) was negligent at some point in the manufacturing process to be able to recover damages, or compensation. Where strict liability is in play, even manufacturers who exercised the utmost care and did not intend to deceive customers are held liable for injuries.
The plaintiff still must prove defective design, manufacturing, or marketing; and that the shortcoming caused their injury. Some states, such as North Carolina, do not recognize strict liability in product liability actions.
To continue using North Carolina as an example, its law says a plaintiff must prove the manufacturer or seller of the product at issue acted “unreasonably” at some point in the process to be held liable. In other words, there must have been negligence on the part of the party being sued. Proving negligence has four elements:
- A duty to act in a certain way (e.g., a manufacturer’s duty to use care in creating a safe product)
- A breach of that duty
- An injury on the part of the plaintiff
- Evidence that the breach of the duty of care caused the plaintiff’s injury
North Carolina also recognizes breach of warranty as a theory of liability in some cases. “Express” warranties are written statements by the manufacturer promising the product will function a certain way. For example, say you purchase a deep fryer and the paperwork says it’s safe to fry a frozen turkey. If you’re injured when the frozen turkey causes the oil to splatter, your subsequent lawsuit may claim breach of that express warranty.
Implied Warranty of Merchantability
Some warranties may be “implied,” meaning they’re not written and are based on reasonable expectations at the time of purchase. One type is the ‘implied warranty of merchantability,’ which means the product will perform in the same manner as similar products, and will not cause harm when used for the intended purpose. For example, if you buy a TV, you may assume it will not catch fire when left plugged into the wall, even if there is no written statement to that effect.
Implied Warranty of Fitness
An ‘implied warranty of fitness‘ is not a general warranty for all consumers — rather, the consumer asks a seller for a product that will fit their needs, and the seller makes a recommendation. For example, you may ask a dealer to recommend a breathing apparatus to protect you from chemical fumes. If the recommended mask only protects you from dust, and not fumes, that 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 prove the existence of a warranty, the failure of the product to conform to the terms of the warranty, and an injury caused by that failure.
Defenses to Product Liability Lawsuits
If a plaintiff is found to have acted unreasonably in the use of a product, usually it can be used against them in the lawsuit. The defendant can fight a strict liability claim using one or more other common defenses:
- The plaintiff used the product in an unreasonable or unforeseeable way (known as comparative negligence)
- The plaintiff knew of the risk of the specific harm suffered and used the product anyway (known as assumption of risk)
- The plaintiff continued to use the product after noting the defect
- The plaintiff altered the product in some way
- The statute of limitations has run
For example, say you were injured by the blade of a table saw. If you removed the protective plate that prevents your hand from coming into contact with the blade, the defendant in your later lawsuit can claim you altered the product.
Or, let’s assume you tried to pick up the table saw while it was running, resulting in injury. The defendant could claim you used the product in an unreasonably negligent way. Another example is if you noticed a bent blade or safety device that wouldn’t stay attached. If you continued to use the saw and were injured by that defect, you may not win your lawsuit.
What Is Product Liability Insurance?
Manufacturers can purchase insurance which pays out if they are found liable in personal injury cases. Insurance can pay for the following (up to policy limits):
- Compensation to successful plaintiffs
- Medical treatments for plaintiffs
- Defense/court costs
Think You May Have A Personal Injury Case?
Have you been injured by a defective product? Have your case assessed by a product liability attorney who can explain the laws in your state.