What Is Product Liability, and What are the Components of a Product Liability Claim?

What happens when someone purchases or uses a product that was made with manufacturing or design defects? In some cases, the product may not work as intended, and in more extreme cases, users of those products could be subjected to serious harm or injury. A defective or dangerous product is what underlies a claim for product liability. So what exactly are product liability claims?

A broken stepladder leading to an injury is a potential product liability case

Type of Defect

There are different types of defects that can cause a product to fail or not work properly. Some product defects may be the result of an error, some may be due to negligence, and others can result from deliberate decisions (usually made to save costs at the expense of safety and proper operation). The following are not the only types of defects that can exist but are commonly found, especially in product liability cases. You can also learn more about different defect types on Nolo.com.

Design Defects

Design defects arise when a product is designed in a way that causes it to be dangerous or causes it to fail. When companies are designing products, it is generally their responsibility to make sure that when used as intended, the products are as safe as can reasonably be expected (for example, a chainsaw may be dangerous even without design defects, but if a chainsaw is designed in such a way where it could turn on while a chain is being replaced, that would likely be a design defect). Design defects can also include a lack of safety features or hidden defects that become evident after the product has made it to the market.

Failure to Warn

A defective product may not be defective because of the product itself, but rather in the instructions surrounding the use of the product or the labeling on the product. In the chainsaw example from above, there may be a lockout button that renders the product perfectly safe, but if the instructions do not mention that feature or it is not properly labeled, then the manufacturer of the product may be failing to effectively warn a user of potential dangers and strategies to mitigate those dangers.

Manufacturing Defects

Manufacturing defects are those which result from problems encountered in the manufacturing process. Some unscrupulous business owners may choose to cut corners when manufacturing their products – this can include using inferior or cheaper materials than advertised, omitting component parts of products during manufacturing, using processes that can weaken the integrity of products, and more. Companies that do this may be aiming to put their own business needs ahead of consumer safety or may have recognized that a product in its current state could lead to financial losses, so reducing costs can mitigate those losses.

In many cases, manufacturing defects come about not from malicious activities but from making mistakes in maintenance or setting up manufacturing lines and facilities. While these defects may not be intentional, it is possible that the manufacturer still has liability.

Manufacturing defects are a common cause of defective products and are among the easiest to prove in a court case as businesses often have records about parts or other inputs they ordered for their products, safety reports done internally or by third parties, and eyewitnesses in the manufacturing process that can attest to business practices impacting product safety and reliability.

Shipper, Wholesaler/Distributor, and Retailer Negligence

In some cases, a product was designed safely, and the manufacturing process was performed correctly – while the product should work as intended, storage conditions, shipping issues, or other conditions in the supply chain caused the product to fail. In this case, there is still a claim for product liability damage. While parties in a supply chain may not need to check products to ensure they are safe to sell, damage that occurs during shipping or storage that renders a product unsafe can open these individuals to a product liability action. These types of cases can arise from physical damage to a product, removal of instructions or warnings, and other cases where a risk of harm is elevated due to the actions of a party in the supply chain process.

In cases where a party other than the manufacturer is involved, the product liability lawsuit may be more complex to navigate, making it critically important that you work with an attorney or law firm familiar with this area of law.

Results of Defects

A product may be defective, but would there be a liability case without damage or injury? Generally speaking, the defects in a product must cause some sort of harm for there to be liability.

Bodily Injury

Defective products can cause bodily injury to users – these can sometimes be minor injuries or may end up being catastrophic, including, in the worst of cases, debilitating permanent injury, disfigurement, or even wrongful death. If someone is injured when using a product, they should first make sure that they are safe and have the medical attention required. Following that, it is critical to preserve the product that failed, document the scene of the accident, and get in touch with a qualified product liability law firm.

Damage to Property

In some cases, a product may fail, ultimately causing damage to property rather than to a person. Generally speaking, these types of claims cannot be recovered under the same product liability law that deals with injuries but can lead to a tort claim. If a product fails and causes damage to your property, you should follow the same guidelines above – preserve the product, document the scene, and contact an attorney that specializes in product torts and breach of warranty claims.

Who is Responsible for a Defective Product?

In a cause of action brought for a defective product, it is not always evident who is responsible for the product liability claims. In many cases, it is the manufacturer, but it can also be a result of the distributor, retailers, or shipping companies used to move the products. However, most jurisdictions follow the “stream of commerce” approach, which means that anyone involved in the production and delivery of the product may be liable for its defects. Further, many jurisdictions follow a “strict liability” approach. As the answer to who is responsible is not always clear, it is important you speak with a qualified and experienced attorney to determine if you have a claim and to understand your legal rights.

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