When a Defective Product Injures You: Product Liability Law

If you’ve been hurt by a product that wasn’t working properly, you may have grounds for a product liability claim. Learn who should pay.

In a modern economy like the United States, we rely on manufactured goods and pre-packaged food. We do this because we assume that if something is being mass produced and sold to the public, it’s safe to use. But what happens when that assumption is incorrect?

Defective products usually don’t appear to be dangerous. This illusion of safety can have tragic consequences when you least expect it. Ladders can break while you stand on them. Propane tanks can explode and cause third-degree burns. Even prescription drugs you take to save your life can poison you or cause cancer.

Products liability suits hold product makers and distributors liable for the injuries they cause. Unlike negligence lawsuits, these claims don’t need a showing of carelessness — they are strict liability tort claims.

In a way, product liability laws apply to these companies like speeding laws apply to you. If a company’s product hurts you because it’s defective, it doesn’t matter whether they intended the injury or not. They are liable for it in any event.

This article will look at the basics of product liability claims and the types of companies that can be sued. Along the way, we’ll also examine the kind of evidence and issues that might arise in these cases.

What Is a Defective Product?

Hand holding a broken seat belt

Product liability lawsuits generally encompass three kinds of product defects that harm the injured party: manufacturing defects, design defects, and marketing defects.

While they are not mutually exclusive, most cases tend to focus on only one type of defect, as the proof for each is very different.

Warranty claims are related non-defect claims that can also be used. The various types of product liability claims are discussed below.

1. Manufacturing Defect

The first type of product defect is a manufacturing defect. This type of defect happens when there is a mistake in the making of one item that makes it dangerous.

For example, let’s consider an item that almost every parent in the United States purchases and depends upon: an infant car seat. These items are specifically designed to keep a child secure in the event of a car crash.

Now suppose that the seat belt mechanism in the car seat you bought was damaged at the factory while being fabricated. Specifically, the buckle was exposed to too much heat and was severely weakened. Now, as a result, even a slight impact to the vehicle will cause the belt to become unlatched and release your baby. When you have a car crash, your child is injured.

Here, the infant seat was designed to keep your baby safe, and there was nothing wrong with that design. However, the manufacturing process of this particular seat was faulty and caused the seat to fail. A manufacturing defect like this one can also be referred to as an unintended defect. The fact that it was unintended, though, does not absolve the manufacturer of liability.

To prove a manufacturing defect, you or your lawyer have to show that the car seat did not meet the design standards. Therefore, it did not function properly, causing your child to be injured. If the company defending against your claim can show that the injury was due to user error rather than a defect, they may have a valid defense.

2. Design Defect

While a manufacturing defect only applies to a particular item, a design defect applies to an entire line of products. Here, it’s not an error that makes the dangerous product, but its inherent nature. Though the safety problem with the product is not intended, the product was produced in the intended way.

Defective design of the product often arises when it’s poorly thought out from a practical use standpoint. For example, let’s say you buy a grill that uses a propane tank for cooking. You also buy a propane tank that has a particular kind of valve that connects to the grill.

Unfortunately, the propane tank valve was designed with material that breaks down when exposed to high levels of heat. You begin cooking with your new grill and propane tank. The ambient heat from your grill breaks down the valve on the propane tank, which begins to leak. A stray flame catches the leaking propane, which causes an explosion that burns you.

In this case, the design of the propane tank was defective. The material used around the valve caused the propane leak. The tank then ignited and injured you.

In these kinds of cases, you or your personal injury attorney would generally have to show that there was a safer material that could have been used in the design of the propane tank. (Perhaps you could use the design of a non-exploding tank to help with this.) The unavailability of a safer design is generally a defense against a design defect claim.

3. Marketing Defect (Failure To Warn)

Distinct from both manufacturing and design defects is the failure to warn, known in some states as a marketing defect. This takes place when the manufacturer either knows or should know about hazards that can result from the use of a product. The company, however, does not disclose those risks to the consumer.

The consumer is then injured by using the product. The idea behind this particular product defect claim is that the consumer should have received adequate warning of the risks of using the product. For example, the labeling could have stated any risks so the buyer could make an informed decision. In this way, the failure to warn doctrine is somewhat similar to assumption of risk.

A well-known example of a failure to warn case is Cipollone v. Liggett Group, Inc. In that case, the United States Supreme Court considered tobacco companies’ failure to warn about the health effects of smoking. Similar claims might be made about prescription drugs that a company knows have dangerous side effects.

In a failure to warn case, you have to show that both the company’s warning was inadequate and the faulty warning proximately caused your injury. Where you cannot show that causation, you may not be able to win.

A “proximate cause” is a legal cause of your injury. While an injury may only have a simple factual cause, it can have multiple proximate causes. This is so because many people and companies may have had a hand in creating the situation that harmed the injured person.

4. Breach of Warranty

Although breach of warranty claims are not necessarily product defect cases, the two case types often go hand in hand. A breach of express warranty occurs when a seller or manufacturer makes a representation about a product that is not true and causes you injury.

For example, let’s say a seller of sunglasses told you that they could be used to stare directly at the sun. You try it and your eyes are injured. That particular warranty was false and you might have a claim against the company that sold you those sunglasses.

There are also implied warranties that can be breached. They are “implied” because the law presumes these warranties whether they are actually spoken or not. Two of the most common are the implied warranty of merchantability and the implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose under the Uniform Commercial Code.

The merchantability warranty is an unspoken warranty of quality made by certain kinds of sellers — it’s the implication that they made a good and safe product.

The particular purpose warranty comes into play when the seller knows that goods are going to be used for a certain purpose. It also addresses that the customer is relying on the seller’s skill or judgment that the product sold is appropriate for that purpose. In other words, the product was made and recommended by an expert for its intended use.

Who Has Strict Liability for Defects?

Woman feeling nauseous while eating

Up until now, we have been discussing the liability of product manufacturers and designers for defective products. You should keep in mind, though, that many different companies may be liable for your injury by a defective product.

For example, if any of a product’s component parts is defective, the company that made and sold that component to the manufacturer can also be sued in your action for a defective product. In the example of a propane tank with a defective valve, the company that fabricated the valve could be a proper defendant along with a wholesaler.

Also potentially liable to the injured person are retailers. As a rule, any entity that was involved in the chain of distribution to a customer may have liability in one of these lawsuits. Though it may seem unfair from a layman’s perspective, the imposition of liability is important for maintaining public safety from defective products.

Hold Companies Responsible and Improve Product Safety

As a consumer, you have the right to products that are not unreasonably dangerous. You also have the right to assume that your purchases are well manufactured and will not break at a disastrous time. Even if the product you are using is one that is inherently dangerous, you should be adequately warned about the risks that come along with that product.

If a company put one of these products in your home and you were hurt because of it, you deserve to be made whole. If you or a loved one has been injured by a defective product, contact a qualified personal injury lawyer or law firm in your state for a free consultation and case evaluation.

Matthew Carter, Esq. has been a licensed attorney since 2004. He’s admitted to practice law in California and Nevada, where he was awarded the Martindale.com rating of AV – Preeminent. Matthew has successfully handled a variety of personal injury and wrongful death cases, as well as trials, appeals, and evidentiary hearings throughout state and federal... Read More >>

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