Products Liability and Defective Product Cases
Consumer products that are defective and dangerous may cause injury or death. Each year, despite consumer protection laws and advanced manufacturing techniques, thousands of people are hurt by dangerous products that reach the market. Common injuries include amputation, traumatic brain injury, carbon monoxide poisoning, choking, paralysis, and burns. Some companies are not as careful as they should be when bringing products to market. Products liability cases can be complex. Medical professionals, engineers, and other experts may be called to testify to prove that the defective product directly caused a plaintiff’s injury.
Who is Liable for Compensating Victims Injured by Defective Products?
When a defective product causes an injury, it is possible that multiple parties in the distribution chain can be held liable, including the following:
- Product manufacturers
- Manufacturers of component parts
- The designer of any part of the product
- Companies that assemble and/or modify the product
- Wholesalers or distributors
It is important to identify all potentially liable parties to ensure that all entitled compensation can be recovered. Under the theory of joint and several liability, all defendants bear collective responsibility for paying compensation if it is determined that a product defect caused harm. If one defendant lacks the financial resources to pay, the others must make up the difference.
The process of identifying liable parties can be complicated. There are multiple points where a defect may have been introduced or missed. Manufacturers employ various quality control processes to ensure products are produced and assembled correctly. Outside consultants may be brought in at any point in the process, and their liability should be investigated. Retailers and distributors may also be held accountable, particularly if they are found to have sold or distributed products that were recalled by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
When Should I File a Products Liability Claim?
In California, lawsuits involving defective products are often filed as personal injury claims. Victims should consider filing a products liability claim if they sustained serious injury that was clearly due to a defective product. A claim will be valid only if it can be shown that the defect was a substantial factor in causing the injury.
If someone was harmed because a product was used in a way that it was not intended to be used, they may not have a valid claim. For example, if an individual falls while standing on the top step of ladder, and the ladder had a label that warned users about the dangers of standing on the top step, then it will be very difficult to prove that the ladder was defective. However, if someone was using the ladder properly and a faulty bolt caused it to collapse, they may have a valid claim.
A claim must establish that the product was legally defective owing to how it was manufactured or designed, or that warning labels, signs, or other instructions for safe use were inadequate. There are several legal theories that may be brought in a products liability claim, including the following:
- Strict liability
- Risk/benefits test
- Consumer expectations
Manufacturers are strictly liable when they place products on the market that cause injury. The victim does not necessarily need to prove that the defendants acted with intent or were negligent. This is one characteristic that makes products liability cases different than traditional personal injury claims. There are typically three types of defects under strict liability, which include manufacturing defects, design defects, and a failure to warn.
Design Defects and Consumer Expectations
Under the consumer expectations test, a product may be defective in design if, when the consumer is using the product in the intended manner, it fails to perform as safely as an ordinary consumer would expect. The victim must produce evidence that the product failed to satisfy ordinary consumer expectations of safety. Also, a design considered safe at the time the product was placed on the market may be deemed defective several years later at the time of injury, owing to changing consumer expectations or industry standards. If the defect is attributable to changing standards, the manufacturer may be held liable for failing to modify or retrofit the product or to warn users of dangers that manifested after the product was manufactured.
Design Defects and the Risk/Benefits Test
The alternative test, risk/benefits, is a bit more complicated than consumer expectations. Using risk/benefits, the defendant may be held liable if the benefits of the product’s design do not outweigh the risks. In deciding risks versus benefits, juries are asked to consider the following:
- The gravity of the potential harm resulting from using the product
- The likelihood that this potential harm will occur
- The feasibility, cost, and disadvantages of an alternative, safer design
When proceeding under the risk/benefit test, the victim need only establish evidence that would permit the jury to find a design feature of the product was a proximate cause of plaintiff’s injuries. They do not need to demonstrate feasible alternative designs. Instead, the burden shifts to the product designer to establish that the benefits outweighed the design risks.
Recovery on a theory of negligent design of a product involves balancing the likelihood and gravity of potential harm from a given design against the burden of the measures required to avoid the harm. If the likelihood and gravity of harm outweigh the design’s utility, the manufacturer may be found negligent for having placed the product on the market regardless of any product warnings the manufacturer may have provided.
Failure to Warn
A well-designed product that was properly manufactured may still be found defective if the consumer was not provided with suitable warnings.
There are two types of potential warning defects: the first is a failure to inform consumers of risks or side effects that may follow foreseeable use of the product. Proper warnings give consumers more power to eliminate or reduce the risk of harm. The second is a failure to instruct consumers how the product should be used. Clear instructions provide consumers with the opportunity to make informed choices.
Knowledge of the risks involved is an essential element of failure to warn strict liability. In other words, injured victims claiming a product was defective due to a failure to warn must plead and prove that the product defendants actually knew of the risks involved at the time of manufacture and/or distribution, or based on the state of scientific knowledge at the time of manufacture and/or distribution, should have known of the risks.
The case involving McDonald’s hot coffee is one of the most famous examples of failure to warn. A 79-year-old woman successfully sued the fast-food chain for failing to provide adequate warning about its dangerously hot coffee, which caused third-degree burns when it spilled in her lap.
In some products liability cases, the victim may be partially at-fault for the injury caused by the defective product. Several cases have been brought to court involving automobile accidents in which victims were not wearing their seat belt or were speeding, running a red light, or engaged in some other action that caused the crash. Here, however, the threshold issue is whether the product defect was a substantial factor in bringing about plaintiff’s injury; if so, the defendant is a legal cause and the issue becomes one of apportioning damages by comparative fault.
What Laws Regulate Defective Products?
In the U.S., the CPSC is responsible for protecting consumers from certain types of defective products. The Consumer Protection Safety Act established the CPSC in 1972, giving the agency the authority to issue recalls and ban products. The purpose of the Act is to:
- Protect the public against unreasonable risks of injury associated with consumer products
- Make it easier for consumers to evaluate the safety of consumer products
- Establish uniform safety standards for products
- Promote research and investigation into the causes and prevention of product-related deaths, illnesses, and injuries
The CPSC maintains a database of recalled and banned products, and compiles statistics about injuries and deaths due to defective products. According to the CPSC, fatalities, injuries, and property damage due to defective consumer products cost Americans more than $1 trillion each year. Consumers have the right to report a product they believe to be defective. However, the CPSC is under no obligation to investigate an individual complaint. The CPSC covers many types of products—including toys, swimming pools, furniture, appliances, electronics, chemicals, and much more—but does not have authority over automobiles, boats, firearms, cosmetics, and medical devices.
Recalls of Automobiles
The opens in a new windowNational Highway Transportation and Safety Administration (NHTSA) is responsible for issuing safety standards for motor vehicles and requiring manufacturers to recall their products and equipment if they are found to have safety-related defects. The NHTSA has recalled nearly 400 million vehicles over the past 55 years. Millions of car seats, tires, and pieces of equipment have also been recalled by the agency.
In some cases, the manufacturers discover safety defects and voluntarily recall their products. The NHTSA also launches its own investigations and orders recalls via the courts. Manufacturers are responsible for remedying defects at no charge to the consumer. After the NHTSA initiates a recall, consumers may take legal action if the defective motor vehicle or product caused injury. Examples of defects which the NHTSA considers opens in a new windowsafety-related include the following:
- Seats that fail during normal use
- Air bags that deploy unexpectedly
- Steering components that break suddenly
- Fuel system components that leak and cause vehicle fires in an accident
- Car seats that create a risk of injury
- Car jacks that collapse unexpectedly
- Accelerators that stick
One of the most significant auto recalls involves opens in a new windowTakata airbags. This recall affected 19 automakers and approximately 56 million Takata air bags in 41.6 million vehicles.
Los Angeles Products Liability Lawyers at ACTS Law Provide Skilled Representation for Victims Injured by Defective Products
Products liability cases can become very complex because of the many potential parties that may be held liable in the chain of distribution. There are also numerous legal theories that may be used to prove that a product is defective. The highly qualified Los Angeles products liability lawyers at ACTS Law have extensive experience with numerous complex product liability cases, handling each claim as if it will go to trial. If you or a loved one suffered a significant injury as a result of a defective product, contact us online today or call 833-ACTS-LAW for a free consultation. We serve clients throughout southern California from our offices in Los Angeles and San Diego.