What is Product Liability?
Ever wondered why all laundry detergents have a “keep out of reach of children” symbol? Well, let’s go down the memory lane and go back to 2018. It is January, TikTok is getting bigger every day, and one “challenge” started to become popular amongst teenagers - the Tide Pods challenge.
This game of dare was nothing new to the Internet - we went through the “cinnamon challenge,” then the “gallon challenge,” then Tide Pods came into play with more than alarming results to a seemingly ridiculous play. Is it the teenagers' fault who participated in this game of dare? Or is it the manufacturers who made a mistake in the design of their products who should take the blame?
Thousands of Americans are hurt every year due to defective or dangerous products. Unlike standard injury law, "product liability law" specifies who is liable for harm caused by defective or dangerous products. In some cases, this framework facilitates a victim's right to monetary compensation.
How the product liability law works, who is to blame for any defects or injuries incurred, what types of defects are there, and how to address problems with defective products are all the subjects we are going to cover today.
Explaining Product Liability
The term "product liability" is used to describe the legal responsibility that can be placed on a business, manufacturer or seller, when it is found to have distributed a faulty product to the general public.
Those involved in the distribution of a defective product that cause damage must take responsibility for the harm they have caused. The law generally requires that a product live up to the average consumer's expectations. A product fails to live up to consumer expectations when it has flaws or risks that are not obvious.
At the federal level, product liability law does not exist. Claims for compensation due to product defects are typically filed in court under state law and the theories of negligence, strict liability, or breach of warranty. In addition, the Uniform Commercial Code has inspired a set of commercial statutes in every state, and these statutes will include warranty rules regarding product liability.
Who is Liable for Product Defects?
To associate a party liable for product defects you must firstly buy a certain product, test it, and then step forward with a certain statement, right? Well, only if we’re talking in past tense.
Previously known as a “privity of contract”, a proper relationship between a product and a buyer, was a starting point of any judicial process. Today, however, many US states overlook this requirement, and anyone who can foreseeably be hurt by a certain product can make a legal claim about the product’s defect. The only important factor is that the same product is available for purchase at the regular market.
But who is liable? Any participant in the product's supply chain can be blamed for product defect, including:
- The product manufacturer;
- The manufacturer who created certain parts of the product;
- Another party that installs or assembles the product;
- The wholesalers;
- The marketplace or a retailer who puts the product in front of customers.
We previously mentioned a “regular market” as a place of purchase meaning that if you bought a defective product on a flea market or during someone’s garage sale, you can’t put liability on the reseller.
Product Defects Types
Any product liability claim must establish that the defendant's product was defective, and that the defect produced the product absurdly dangerous. There are three distinct kinds of defects that could result in harm to the consumer and put the manufacturer or supplier at fault.
If a product has a flaw in its design, it poses an unreasonable risk to consumers. In most cases, the flaw is present across the board, not just in one particular unit. Given that the defect was introduced during the design phase rather than during production, it cannot be attributed to a faulty product. Cases alleging design flaws are typically filed only against the product's designer, not the product's manufacturer or retailer.
Some of the examples include:
- A power tool's safety guard that is poorly made and fails to protect its user.
- Products with weak frames, like an easily-toppled-over dresser or table;
- A garment that catches fire easily or an electric heater that melts at full heat;
- Inherently hazardous products, such as toys that can cause choking;
- Liquids or substances that are toxic or dangerous but are not contained adequately, such as poisons with broken caps;
- Vehicles' mechanical flaws, such as being top-heavy and rolling over on sharp turns.
Sadly, defective products are all too common in the manufacturing industry. Products with known defects are frequently recalled in an effort to limit casualties. But sometimes it's too late to issue a recall. When consumers are made aware of potential manufacturing defects, it is often too late to prevent further harm or injury. As a result, businesses need to take extra precautions to ensure that their wares are safe for consumers before going on sale.
Several examples of possible manufacturing flaws include:
- Using improper materials when constructing a product, including bolts, screws, and fasteners;
- Weirdly piecing together raw materials and prefabricated components;
- Putting in electrical components without proper insulation;
- Using hazardous chemicals during the production process.
These can all result in significant damage and injury. That's why it's the responsibility of the manufacturer to provide safe options.
A flaw in the marketing of a product occurs when the company doesn't prioritize the welfare of its customers. Therefore, the manufacturer imposes unlimited responsibility for any resulting harm. Some typical cases of marketing defects include:
- False user instructions;
- Inaccurate statements;
- A lack of proper warning to the consumer risk;
- Adverts that promote unsafe practices;
- Inaccurate warning labels.
Types of Compensation for Product Liability
Now, if you ever encounter a defective product and plead the case in court, based on the state you live in, you can get different types of compensation. For example, in New York, as stated by law offices of Spar and Bernstein, there are five different types:
- Medical Expenses: Injuries sustained as a result of defective products can range from minor to catastrophic, requiring emergency surgery, expensive medical care, and possibly even rehabilitation after the accident. You have the right to seek financial compensation for injuries caused by a defective or dangerous product.
- Lost Income: Compensation for lost wages can be sought if an injury causes a person to miss work. Your claim may include compensation for lost profits if you are the business owner where you were injured and your income was affected
- Loss of Enjoyment: You may be eligible for damages for loss of enjoyment if an injury has prevented you from engaging in past amusements.
- Loss Of Consortium: If your injury has a negative impact on your marriage, you can seek compensation for loss of consortium.
- Pain And Suffering: You can seek compensation for pain and suffering if you are in physical pain and emotional distress as a result of your injury.
Products Should Speak for Themselves
We don’t mind if “res ipsa loquitur” means nothing to you, but it is important to understand this Latin term in order to understand the complexities of product liability. Translated, it means that "the thing speaks for itself," indicating that the defect at issue would not exist in the absence of negligence.
That is why some lawsuits never end in favor of the plaintiff. For example, if an electrical knife “doesn’t work” if not turned on, if the champagne cork hits your eye, or if your Nintendo Wii cannot toast a piece of bread, it’s not the product’s fault as its design and purpose are obvious. However, determining what is obvious must be taken care of.
Manufacturers and suppliers of products that are inevitably unsafe must provide adequate warnings of those dangers and risks to consumers so that they can make educated choices. Instructions on how to use a product safely are just as vital as any warning labels. If manufacturers and designers are going to label something, do need to do it correctly.
The labeling of many consumer goods is governed by state laws. Some parties may be held liable for product liability if they fail to comply with a law that would have protected their customers' health.
How Manufacturers Defend Themselves
Manufacturers are held strictly liable for defects in their products in some of the 46 states. Under strict liability, legal responsibility may attach even if an individual is not at fault in the common legal sense. The statutes of limitation, the burden of proof, and the defenses open to manufacturers vary widely among these codes.
Nonetheless, there are some defenses that are generally recognized by states. If the injured party can be shown to have had prior knowledge of the risks associated with a product, the accused party may be released from liability.
The product's manufacturer or supplier must be identified so that the plaintiff can file suit against them. One notable exception to this general rule is the "market share liability" exception that relates to cases involving defective medications. Each pharmaceutical company will be held liable in proportion to its share of sales in the area where the injuries happened if a plaintiff is unable to specify which company supplied the drug they took.
The manufacturer may also claim that the injury was the result of the plaintiff making substantial changes to the product after it had left the manufacturer's control. The plaintiff's misuse of the product in an unexpected way and the resulting injuries are a related defense.
Inescapably Unsafe Products
Some products simply cannot be made safer without drastically diminishing their utility. It is commonly held that end-users and purchasers have the most expertise in reducing the potential for harm when dealing with such products.
Manufacturers and suppliers of products that are inevitably unsafe must therefore provide adequate warnings of the dangers and risks associated with those products in order to allow consumers to make educated choices.
An interesting example of this is a case against Walsh Press & Die Company. A man sued the company for damages after losing several fingers after a Walsh-built punch press malfunctioned. He claimed that Walsh had not protected its users adequately or warned them of the dangers posed by the company's machine.
In spite of this, Walsh provided evidence that, in the intervening 34 years since it left the factory, the punch press had undergone alterations by third parties. Walsh had put in a different motor, pedal set, flywheel guard, and cam switch. Someone had taken out the original safety features. The court ruled that once a product is significantly changed, the original manufacturer can no longer be held liable for any injuries caused by using that product.
So, Who Should Be Liable for Teenagers That Ate the Tide Pods?
Let’s finalize this article by circling back to the infamous Tide pods. A laundry pod containing chemical liquid, covered with a thin plastic foil that is degradable in contact with water should and is supposed to be used only for laundry washing, logically speaking. But the problem with this situation goes a bit deeper than just pure logic.
What is interesting in this case is that detergent pods are designed like candies. Their colorful swirls, intentionally designed in a way to suggest the power of concentrated detergent can seem attractive as we are accustomed to a certain candy-like look that seems quite appetizing.
Yet, designers of these pods made their design choices based on the experience of their users and the knowledge they gathered from them. Simply put, people liked seeing what kind of liquid and product they put in their washing machines, even just by seeing its colors.
But, the thing is, every laundry detergent has a warning on their packaging noting the dangerous effects it can bring in contact with eyes, instructions on how it should be stored, and a visible symbol suggesting it should be kept away from children’s range.
Talking about the subject that took nation-wide attention, Tide’s parent company Procter & Gamble's spokesman Damon Jones said it's unfair to blame the design for the alarming uptick. He claimed that there is a big difference between mistakenly consuming a product that is logically harming your body and intentionally putting it inside your mouth as part of a joke.
This definitely was a bad taste joke, but who is responsible for the teenagers’ poisoning cases around the world - we will let you be the judge of that. One thing is for sure: if someone intentionally misuse a certain product, that is absolutely out of the manufacturer's, retailer’s, or anyone else’s hand involved in the production process.