Products liability is an area of the law that imposes a duty on manufacturers or sellers of products to refrain from putting dangerous or defective products into the stream of commerce. The scope of products liability is huge, as it is applied to nearly every product in the marketplace. Products such as drugs, vehicles, equipment, food, toys – the list is really endless. Asbestos, tobacco litigation and some toxic tort cases are examples of these types of claims.
Products liability lawsuits are either based on negligence or are a type of strict liability, which means that even if the manufacturer or seller exercised due care, if the product caused injury, they are responsible.
The concept of products liability grew fairly slowly. Some of the earliest United States strict liability cases in the early 1900’s were concerning food safety. These cases gave rise to the food and drug safety rules we have now.
The Consumer Safety Protection Commission is the watchdog organization for products in the United States, and serves as a clearinghouse for complaints and notices, but there is no federal products liability law. This area is left to the individual states to adjudicate under common law (state judge-made law). There are also consumer protection agencies in many states.
There are 3 main theories of products liability law – defective manufacture, defective design, and failure to warn of risks. Let’s take a look at those a bit more in depth.
Manufacturing defects occur when the item is being produced. It may involve a defective component part, or improper assembly. Poor quality materials or workmanship can create the defect. The defect could be avoided with better quality materials or better workmanship in the assembly.
Examples of manufacturing defects are:
- Using the wrong type of fasteners – bolts, screws, nuts etc.
- Installing electrical components incorrectly that results in shocks
- Omitting critical parts of the product
- A tainted batch of food or medicine
Often the defective manufacture of a product is fairly limited in scope and number, as the defect is detected and the process changed. The manufacturer will issue recalls to warn consumers about the problems with the product. These recalls tend to limit the number of potential products liability lawsuits, and are economically beneficial to the manufacturer. Often, however, the recalls are not issued until someone has been seriously injured or killed.
Defective design liability arises when the product is manufactured correctly, but there is danger inherent in the design of the product. For example, a saw that has no blade guard, thus allowing injury, would be a design defect. Poor seat belt or airbag deployment designs are other examples. Gas tanks that explode on impact are other examples.
Manufacturers can be liable for injuries caused by defective design if it can be proven that the design defect caused the injury. If you are hurt while using a defectively designed product, but that defective design did not cause the injury, you likely have no claim. Mere use of the product does not give rise to the liability.
Serious issues arise when the manufacturer knows about the danger or defect and fails to warn the consumers or take steps to correct the problem. This is unfolding now, with the General Motors cases that are being litigated in the courts and investigated in Congress. Apparently, GM knew about the faulty switch nearly a decade ago. Ultimately, they recalled 2.59 million cars with faulty ignition switches, after the deaths of 13 people. An intentional cost-benefit decision was made to NOT replace the faulty switches because it would cost GM about 90 cents per switch.
Failure to Warn
Did you know that a cup of coffee you order from any fast food place “contains hot liquid?” Before you think that infamous lawsuit was frivolous and on the edge of ridiculous, let’s talk actual facts. The coffee in question was served at 180 -190 degrees Fahrenheit, and at that temperature, liquid will cause third degree burns in two to seven seconds. Third degree burns do not heal without skin grafts. The 79 year old woman received third-degree burns over 16 percent of her body. She was hospitalized for eight days, and had to undergo whirlpool treatment for debridement of her wounds, skin grafting, scarring. She suffered from this for more than two years.
Interestingly, at trial the defendant company admitted it knew about the risk of serious burns for more than 10 years, and had claims from over 700 people about burns suffered from the hot coffee. The woman had offered to settle for $20,000, but the company refused. There was a warning on the cup, but the jury decided it was not sufficient or big enough. The jury was also put off by the company’s corporate arrogance and callousness, and awarded her $2.7 million in punitive damages. This was in addition to $160,000 in compensatory damages. The punitive damages amount was reduced by the trial judge to $480,000. Both parties appealed, and came to a post-verdict settlement agreement.
The point here is manufacturers and sellers of products are required to put warnings on potentially hazardous products. As another example, when you pick up dry cleaning, the plastic bag that covers the clean clothes has a warning that the bag is not a toy and may cause suffocation. As an adult, you know this, but children see everything as a potential toy. The list of products with warnings is long – fans, mowers, venetian blinds (the cords can be dangerous). If the warning is not adequate, and someone is harmed liability can attach.
Many of the current pharmaceutical drug cases that are being litigated are based on the failure to warn theory. There are side effects that arise that are not disclosed in the literature, and the result is many people are harmed by the particular drug.
Florida Law on Products Liability
Florida still maintains the distinction between negligence and strict liability it products liability law. According to some fairly recent case law (2003), for a plaintiff to prove negligence in a products liability case, they must prove 1) the manufacturer must have a legal duty to design and manufacture a product reasonably safe for use; (2) the manufacturer must fail to comply with that duty; (3) the plaintiff must have an injury that is legally caused by the manufacturer’s breach of duty; and (4) the plaintiff must have suffered damages.
A 2010 case states that in order for a plaintiff to prove a strict liability case, they must “establish the manufacturer’s relationship to the product in question, the defect and unreasonably dangerous condition of the product, and the existence of the proximate causal connection between such condition and the user’s injuries or damages.”
Many times litigation over these products becomes a class action lawsuit. There are special rules surrounding this type of suit, and a law firm experienced in this type of litigation will know exactly how to best proceed.
We’ve Only Just Begun
Products liability law is such a vast area that it is impossible to comprehensively discuss it in one article. In upcoming posts we will talk about specific types of cases, such as drug or vehicle problems.
If you or a loved one has been injured or killed as a result of a defective product, you should talk to an attorney who is experienced in this field. Florida has a 4 year statute of limitation on these types of claims, so it is beneficial not to wait. Whether your case is an individual or class action claim, you may be entitled to compensation for your injuries.