The law protects persons who are injured by defective products. In the 1963 California Supreme Court case Greenman v. Yuba Power Products, the court decided—for the first time—that a manufacturer is strictly liable in tort when the article he places on the market, knowing that it is to be used without inspection for defects, proves to have a defect that causes injury to a human being. The law has evolved and changed since Greenman, but the concept of holding manufacturers and sellers of defective products responsible for the harm they cause to people has remained.
Products liability law is very different from many other areas in the law because responsible persons (like product manufacturers, distributors or sellers) can be held strictly liable for harm done to an injured person. Strict liability imposes responsibility on the product purveyor without a showing of fault, though it may also be advisable to sue the product purveyor for negligence (failure to use reasonable care) or breach of warranty.
The law recognizes three main strict liability theories. In simple terms, a defective product exists at the time of sale or distribution when:
A manufacturing defect occurs when the product departs from the intended design even though all possible care was exercised in the preparation and marketing of the product. Examples might include improperly sealed asbestos insulation; malformed machinery and equipment; tainted food, beverages, and pharmaceuticals; and botched medical devices.
A defective design is proven under either the “risk-utility” test or the “consumer expectations” test. The “risk-utility” test is met when the foreseeable risks of harm posed by the product could have been reduced or avoided had the seller or any other distributer in the commercial chain of distribution adopted a reasonable alternative design, and the omission of the alternative design renders the product not reasonably safe, among other factors. Of course the question of whether the benefits (including lower cost) of the chosen design outweigh the risks of that design is generally a battle for the experts. Alternatively, the “consumer expectations” test is met if the injured party used the product in a reasonably foreseeable way and the product failed to perform as safely as an ordinary consumer would have expected. Sadly, the latter test has limited applications. Examples of defectively designed products include cars that are prone to rollover, and a rotary mower with an inadequate discharge guard.
This category is often referred to as a “failure to warn” claim. A failure to warn occurs when the foreseeable risks of harm posed by the product could have been reduced or avoided had the seller or the distributor, or a predecessor in the commercial chain of distribution, provided reasonable instructions or warnings to the injured party, and the omission of the instructions or warnings presents a substantial danger when the product is used in a reasonably foreseeable way. We recently handled a case involving a caustic cleaning product that bleached our client’s skin—the product label said nothing about its potential to cause one’s skin to lose its pigment.
While the above is just the tip of the iceberg of the law relating to products liability (and does not even discuss often-used defenses), if you believe that you have been harmed by a defective product; contact us for a free consultation.
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