A product liability case is a lawsuit filed by a person who has been injured as a result of using some type of product. For example, a child might suffer an injury from a defective toy causing the parent to file a lawsuit. Someone might become burned by a toxic chemical in a cleaning product, a food product might cause illness when bacteria is found within it, or a car accident resulting in injuries might be caused by a defective part in a car.
The most complicated aspect of a product liability case is “causation.” It is the burden of the injured party or “plaintiff” to prove that the injuries were indeed caused by a defective product.
If the injured party has used the product in a way that was not intended, causation will most likely fail. An example of this could be someone who removes a part from an electrical product and becomes injured afterward or someone who drinks a product that is not meant for internal use. In the first instance, the plaintiff altered the product after the manufacturer sold it, and in the second instance, the plaintiff ignored the product’s warning notice about internal use. The manufacturer in these cases would probably not be found responsible for the injuries.
If an injured party believes that the manufacturer of a product is responsible for his or her injuries, that injured party can file a lawsuit. The responsible parties or “defendants” might include other individuals or companies besides the manufacturer. These can involve an inventor, a distributor or supplier, and/or more than one manufacturer of parts within a product.
In order to prove causation, the plaintiff would probably need to hire a lawyer, who could investigate the facts and perhaps even hire experts to offer their opinions. This would give the plaintiff’s lawyer leverage when negotiating a settlement with the insurance companies for the responsible parties.
The “settlement” is the amount of money that the insurance company offers to the plaintiff to compensate for the injuries. If the plaintiffs and defendants are unable to come to an agreement as to the settlement amount, the case could end up in a courtroom. Lawyers always try to avoid bringing a case to trial because it is more costly for everyone involved. Sometimes, cases will go as far as a jury selection process, however, and the lawyers will settle at the courthouse. This is a type of posturing in an attempt to push the defendants to offer more money or push the plaintiffs to accept the offer that has already been placed on the table.
A product can be found defective as a result of different types of negligence:
Design defect. In this case, the defect existed before the product, and the designer or inventor might be named as a defendant.
Manufacturer defect. This means that the product was not made according to the design. Either a mistake was made, or the manufacturer purposely altered the design for some reason. Sometimes, a mistake is made in a single item. If a conscious decision was made to change the original design, however, a large group (if not all) of the products will contain the defect.
Marketing defect. This kind of defect involves the instructions that were given with the product. If the manufacturer fails to provide proper instructions or warning labels, it might be held liable for someone’s injuries. It can be more difficult to prove causation in this situation because the defendants will no doubt argue that the plaintiff misinterpreted the instructions or used the product improperly.
Since the company or companies that made a product are obligated to prevent defects, product liability cases are usually considered “strict liability,” which means that the maker of the product is 100% responsible for any injuries incurred. In an automobile accident, both parties might be found to carry some fault, but in a product liability case, it is rare for the plaintiff to be found at all responsible for his or her own injuries.
Types of Product Liability Claims
Just as the kind of defect varies, the type of claim a plaintiff files varies depending on the circumstances:
Negligence. In this case, the maker of the product failed to meet its obligation to make that product safe. This can be the result of a design defect or a manufacturer defect.
Breach of warranty. A warranty is a promise that a company makes to a customer with regard to that product. If the company fails to live up to that promise, it can be held responsible for any injuries that result.
Misrepresentation. This is a claim based on a marketing defect. Besides the instructions or warning labels associated with the product, a company might be held liable for injuries if it advertises the product in a way that fails to reasonably warn consumers about the risks of using the product. The company might have been negligent in its failure to provide sufficient warnings, or it may have intentionally misrepresented the product in order to gain more sales. In rare cases, if a company is found to have been malicious in its misrepresentation, the authorities might believe that a crime has been committed. The responsible parties would then be arrested, and a criminal case would be started. Criminal cases are separate from product liability claims, which are called “civil” cases.
Class Action. A “class action” lawsuit is one in which there is a large group of plaintiffs. This occurs when a substantial number of people have been injured by a product’s defect(s). This frequently happens when there is a product recall in which many of a company’s products must be removed from stores and returned to the manufacturer in order to protect the public.
Product liability laws vary from state to state, as does the “statute of limitations.” This means that an injured party only has a certain amount of time to file a claim after the injury occurred. In most states, the statute of limitations is for a period of one or two years.