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.
What is an Unsafe or Defective Product?
A defective product is a product that causes injury or damage because of a flaw or inappropriate or insufficient labeling. Products may also be considered defective if they are designed in such a way that when they are used as intended, it results in an injury. All states allow people injured by defective products to recover damages.
Parties 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 during design and production 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 a Products Liability Claim Should Be Filed
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 the result of 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 an unintended manner, the victim may not have a valid claim. For example, if an individual falls while standing on the top step of a ladder, and the ladder had a label that warned users about the dangers of standing on the top step, it will be difficult to prove that the ladder was defective. On the other hand, if someone was using the ladder properly and a faulty bolt caused it to collapse, the user may have a valid claim.
A products liability claim must establish that the product was legally defective as a result of 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
Importantly, 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 from traditional personal injury claims. There are typically three types of defects under strict liability, including manufacturing defects, design defects, and a failure to warn.
Any entity along the production line, from concept to sales, can be held liable for a defective product. To qualify for a products liability claim, the following conditions must be met:
- A product must be considered unsafe or unhealthy.
- The defective product must also have caused or worsened an injury.
- The product is unsafely designed, and/or is unsafe because the manufacturer failed to give proper warnings and instructions for use.
California law states that the statute of limitations on filing a products liability case is two years from the day the injury was discovered, or could have been discovered by a reasonably diligent injury victim.
These defects occur during the actual construction of a product, including the assembly line, such as a faulty machine or a problem that someone fails to catch: for example, swing sets that have a weak or cracked chain, a case of cough syrup that is contaminated with a foreign substance, or a motorized vehicle with missing brake pads.
To file a products liability case based on a manufacturing defect, the person must demonstrate that there was fault with the product that originated during its manufacturing. If a person is misusing a product, or using it in a fashion that is inappropriate, a court could dismiss the case.
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 its 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 risk/benefits test 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 risk 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/benefits test, the victim only needs to establish evidence that would permit the jury to find a design feature of the product was a proximate cause of the 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 risk.
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, properly manufactured product 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 because of a failure to warn must plead and prove that the 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. In that case, a 79-year-old woman successfully sued the fast-food chain for failing to provide an adequate warning about its dangerously hot coffee, which caused third-degree burns when it spilled in her lap. As the evidence showed McDonald’s had known its coffee was dangerously hot—as it was served at a temperature far hotter than its competitors, and despite years of reports of coffee burns—the jury found McDonald’s liable for failure to warn.
In some products liability cases, the victim may be partially at fault for the injury caused by the defective product. Several automobile accident cases have been brought to court involving victims who were not wearing their seat belt, or were speeding, running a red light, or engaged in some other action that caused the crash. However, the threshold issue in these cases is whether the product defect was a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff’s injury; if so, the issue becomes one of apportioning damages by comparative fault. In a pure comparative fault state like California, the victim’s damages are reduced by the percentage of fault that the jury assigns to the victim.
Laws Regulating Defective Products
In the United States, 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. These are the purposes of the Act:
- 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 resulting from defective products. According to the CPSC, fatalities, injuries, and property damage caused by 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 other products, but does not have authority over automobiles, boats, firearms, cosmetics, and medical devices.
Recalls of Automobiles
The National Highway Traffic 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 that the NHTSA considers safety 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 involved Takata airbags. This recall affected 19 automakers and approximately 56 million Takata air bags in 41.6 million vehicles.
Problems with Prescription Drugs
Prescription drugs are a unique situation when filing a liability case, as there are no limitations on who can be held liable for a problem with a drug. That includes the manufacturer and the doctors and nurses who dispense the product. A case can be made against the doctor who prescribes any medication as well, although such a case could qualify as a medical malpractice claim. Medications also tend to fall under a market share liability exception. In this instance, if the plaintiff cannot identify which manufacturer produced the medication, all of them will be held liable. A defect can occur at multiple levels:
Manufacturing flaws. As with other products, these errors take place in the creation of a drug. It could encompass the wrong chemicals being included or certain ones not being included. The burden for these cases is a strict liability burden of proof in that the plaintiff must simply prove that the medication was made incorrectly. The pharmacist who provides the medication can also make a mistake in its distribution.
Side effects. When a significant or unreasonable side effect takes place, that could fall under either a design defect or a failure to warn defect. For the former to qualify, it would mean that there was a problem with the production of a drug that had a negative impact on every patient who took it. For the latter, it would mean that the side effects could vary depending on the patient who takes the medication. In those cases, it is the duty of the pharmacist to provide instructions for taking the medications. If there is a problem, it could be the pharmacist who could be liable.
Ignoring side effects. Some drug companies may try to be the first at bringing a new drug to the market. The problem is, sometimes the pharmaceutical company is careless or negligent in the rush to introduce the drug, and may ignore long-term or dangerous side effects. Despite knowing about these side effects, a company might proceed with a drug anyway. This can fall under either a failure to warn standard or a design defect. If the plaintiff can prove that the company knew about the problem and moved forward with the drug anyway, they might have grounds for a liability lawsuit.
Minor side effects. Many drugs do have some type of side effects associated with them, although not everyone experiences the same adverse effects or at the same intensity. In some cases, a person may experience side effects that are not major, but are still a nuisance. If someone experiences those types of side effects and the company fails to disclose them, the patient might find more satisfaction by joining a class-action lawsuit than filing a personal injury case.
Generic Drug Manufacturers Are Exempt from the Law
Drug companies that manufacture generic versions of drugs are exempt from many failure-to-warn lawsuits because of a federal law that was first enacted in the mid-1980s, and was affirmed by a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision. The original law states that federal law and the rules of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) supersede any existing state law on the matter. Under federal law, a company that brings a generic drug to market must label it in a similar fashion to the original, complete with a similar warning label and safety label. The rationale of the law is that the company that created the original product has already performed numerous safety tests required by the FDA, so requiring the generic company to do the same would be repetitive.
In turn, some states passed legislation requiring that these companies create labels that are better than the original version. However, in 2010, the Supreme Court disagreed. In Pliva v. Mensing, the court ruled that it is impossible for generic manufacturers to provide better safety labels as the state requested because federal law only requires identical labels. As a result, there is a greater level of liability on name brand manufacturers, meaning a case could stem from which version of a drug a pharmacist gives to a customer.
There is a chance for regulations to change if either Congress amends the law or the FDA makes an amendment to their requirements, but that has not yet taken place.
Unique Aspects of Products Liability Cases
There are some unique aspects of products liability cases. In some of them, the burden of proof rests with the defense and not the plaintiff. The plaintiff can try to invoke the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, which translates roughly to, the thing speaks for itself. This means that the defect would not have taken place unless someone at the company was negligent. It is no longer up to the plaintiff to prove that the defense was negligent, but for the defense to prove that it was not negligent.
Common Defenses in Products Liability Cases
A manufacturing company will not take lightly any accusations that it produced a defective product that can cause harm. They have a reputation to maintain, including the integrity of their products. As such, they will attempt to mount a defense that consists primarily of blaming the person for their own injury. Some of those defenses are as follows:
Failure to connect product with manufacturer. A common defense in products liability cases is an attempt to claim that the plaintiff failed to establish an adequate connection between the defective product and the manufacturer. The plaintiff must demonstrate a clear connection between the two; otherwise, the plaintiff might wind up losing their case.
Inadequate/inappropriate handling of product. The defense will often argue that an injury was not caused by a defect in the product but by the person’s failure to handle the product appropriately. For instance, if someone is working with a hot stove top and they get pushed into it, the manufacturer can argue that it was the push the created the injury and not the product itself. On the other hand, if the event that caused the injury was predictable and preventable through either a change in the design of the product or a clearly labeled warning, a judge might find the company liable for the injury.
Unsanctioned alterations. Another common claim by the defense is that the plaintiff altered the product beyond the control of the manufacturer. They will argue that it was those unregistered changes that caused the injury. It is important for any injured party to document the product through pictures and the other evidence to verify that no alterations were made.
Misuse of the product. The defense will also try to make the argument that the person misused or mishandled the product in some way that caused the accident. They will contend that it was this improper use of the product that led to the injury and not the product itself. The plaintiff should do their best to document what was taking place at the time of the injury, including how they were handling the product at the time. Those who are negligent in handling the product will have a much more difficult time in winning a products liability case. They might be able to obtain a partial judgment, but their monetary award could be greatly reduced.
Buyer beware. Finally, the defense might argue that the plaintiff knew the risks of the product before they purchased it and used it anyway. They may claim that the plaintiff assumed the risk of using the product when they purchased it. If the defense can provide that point, it could help them gain a victory in court. Most defenses will use this argument in negligence and break of warranty claims. Some states will allow it in strict liability claims.
Los Angeles Products Liability Lawyers at ACTS Law Provide Skilled Representation for Victims Injured by Defective Products
Products liability cases can become 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 products liability cases, handling each claim as if it will go to trial. We can help you achieve the appropriate compensation for the harm you or a loved one has suffered. To schedule a free, confidential consultation, call us today at or contact us online.
With offices in San Diego and Los Angeles, we serve clients throughout Southern California.