What You Need to Know about Establishing a Product Liability Case

Product liability cases are different than other personal injury case types. In defective product cases, the victim generally does not have to prove negligence. The only evidence needed is proof of injury and proof of the product’s defect. This is known as strict liability.

Once the injury is documented and the defect established, the victim has met their burden of proof. The burden then shifts to the manufacturer to prove the product wasn’t defective.

Types of Strict Liability for Defective Products

Strict product liability cases are grouped into three categories:

    1. Design Defects
      Design defects are mistakes or inherent flaws in a product. In most cases, the flaws are built into the product when it’s first manufactured, but flaws can also occur during design modifications.
      Example: The designers of an electric radio didn’t think it was necessary to insulate a wire, which caused the radio to catch fire.
    2. Manufacturing Defects
      Manufacturing defects can occur even if the product’s design was not faulty. A product can be inherently flawless in its design, but by the time it comes off the assembly line, it can be defective.
      Example: While an oven was being manufactured, screws were inadvertently left off, causing the door to fall off in customers’ homes.
    3. Marketing Defects (“Failure to Warn”)
      A product can be flawless in its design and manufacturing, and still be defective. This occurs when the manufacturer doesn’t provide the user with enough information to use the product safely, or misstates a product’s benefits.
      Example: A diet supplement’s label indicating proper dosage was confusing, and users were getting ill from ingesting too much of it.

Unavoidable Product Danger

A product can be flawless in its design, manufacture, and marketing, but still be inherently dangerous. Think of a knife, chainsaw, or gasoline. If these products weren’t dangerous, they’d be useless or ineffective.

Example: Eye Injury from Soda Bottle

Jane purchased a one-liter plastic bottle of a popular carbonated soft drink. After getting home from the grocery store, her son accidentally knocked over the closed soda bottle, and it rolled across the kitchen floor.

He picked up the bottle and began to unscrew the cap. The force of the gasses in the bottle caused the cap to blow off, striking the child in his eye and damaging his cornea. Jane, on behalf of her son, sued the manufacturer under strict liability, alleging the bottle’s design was inherently defective.

To prove strict liability, Jane’s attorney had to identify the existence and origin of the soda bottle’s defect. She conducted independent testing of an identical soda bottle. She also subpoenaed the bottle’s design blueprints, and all internal company documents in any way related to the problem.

After exhaustive testing and pre-trial discovery, the attorney identified the defect as the amount of explosive gasses produced when the soda’s carbonated content is shaken, or the bottle is rolled over a distance of a few feet.

The attorney alleged strict liability should apply because the child was injured by the product, and the defect was sufficiently identified. The court agreed, and found in favor of Jane and her son.

Defenses to Strict Product Liability

Strict liability is not automatic. Manufacturers may escape strict liability if they can prove one or more of the following circumstances:

  • The design, manufacture, and marketing of the product was flawless
  • The victim’s misuse or abuse of the product was responsible for his or her injuries
  • The victim was aware of the defect and its danger, and used the product anyway
  • The victim ignored the warning label or instructions

If a manufacturer can prove any of the above circumstances, strict liability will not be automatic. Instead, the burden of proof will shift back to the victim, who then has to disprove the manufacturer’s defenses. Let’s look at an example…

A tanning bed has built-in ultraviolet lamps, necessary for it to work properly. The manufacturer must have a clearly visible warning of maximum exposure time, or a user can suffer serious burns. But if the bed has the proper warning, and the user is still injured, the manufacturer cannot be held liable. The injury is due to the user’s own negligence.

“Res Ipsa Loquitur”

In defective product cases, the victim doesn’t need circumstantial evidence to prove the manufacturer was negligent. The victim only has to prove she was injured, and identify the defect which caused her injuries. To identify a product’s defect, the victim (and her attorney) may have to go through an intense pre-trial discovery process.

Product defects are usually not obvious. An attorney may have to subpoena design documents, depose the company’s product designers, conduct independent product testing, and more. The case may fall apart and be dismissed if the victim can’t identify the defect.

Some product liability cases are exempt from the difficult and expensive pre-trial discovery process. In Res Ipsa Loquitur (or “res ips”) cases, the victim does not have to prove the product defect exists. Res Ipsa Loquitor is Latin for, “the thing speaks for itself.” It means that the product defect is so clearly obvious, having to prove its existence is not legally required.

Under Res Ips, if a reasonable person can look at a product and, without any other proof, recognize the product is clearly defective, then strict liability immediately applies. When alleging Res Ipsa Loquitur, the victim must show:

  1. The product defect is obvious
  2. He or she was injured by the product

In their defense, a manufacturer can still legally respond by saying the victim misused the product, or knew of its danger and used it anyway.

Example: Dangerous Drug

A pharmaceutical company manufactures and sells Aloxar, a prescription drug for arthritis. The pills are blue and have a unique shape. The same company recently placed a new drug on the market to treat insomnia, called Eloxar. Its shape, size, and color are almost identical to Aloxar, but this new drug is intended to induce sleep.

Beth suffered from arthritis, and her doctor prescribed Aloxar. She picked up her prescription from the pharmacy, and noted the pill bottle had her name on it and said Aloxar. Beth had taken the drug before, so she knew its form and color. She was ordered to take one pill, three times a day. Unbeknownst to her, the pharmacist mistakenly substituted Eloxar for Aloxar.

The next morning, she took one pill before leaving her house to go to work. She was driving down the interstate 30 minutes later and fell asleep at the wheel. Her car hit a concrete pillar at high speed, and she was killed instantly.

The family sued the pharmacy and the drug manufacturer. They alleged the manufacturer and pharmacy were strictly liable under the theory of Res Ips. The family used the pharmacist’s wrongful filling of the prescription, and the similarity between the two pills as evidence.

The court agreed, noting the pills were almost identical in size, color, and shape, and even their names were similar. It was obvious the product was defective in its design and marketing.

If you’ve suffered serious injuries from a defective product, meet with a licensed personal injury attorney as soon as possible. The stakes are too high for you to handle a case like this yourself.

If you only suffered minor injuries, however, you may be able to file an injury claim on your own, and negotiate a small settlement with the manufacturer’s insurance company. Either way, it’s worth it to get a free initial consultation with an attorney.

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