Product liability lawsuits, such as those caused by defective products, are commonplace in the United States.
According to the Insurance Information Institute, companies paid out an average of $1.5 million every year between 2014 and 2020 in personal injury lawsuit settlements, excluding punitive damages.
Some of the largest settlements in history have been associated with design and manufacturing defects. Examples include lawsuits associated with cancer-causing agricultural products or faulty motor vehicle parts.
As it stands, there are numerous product liability class action lawsuits being determined in American courts, such as those against Procter & Gamble Company, Johnson & Johnson, and Philips.
What Is Product Liability Law?
Product liability law is a subset of civil law that covers the responsibilities of manufacturers, distributors, retailers, and other seller categories in connection with the sale of defective products.
The role of product liability law is to protect consumers who are injured as a result of using defective products. When a customer has been hurt by a particular product, they can pursue a civil claim against the at-fault manufacturer or seller for damages.
In such cases, the injured party must show that the company was negligent in some way.
What Must Plaintiffs Prove in a Product Liability Case?
In a product liability case, the plaintiff has to prove the following:
- Product had an unreasonably dangerous defect
- The defect existed when the product left the control of the defendant (the manufacturer or seller)
- Product was used as untended
- Defect caused harm to the user in a way that can be compensated
Under the “strict liability” legal doctrine, plaintiffs only have to prove some form of negligence during the design, manufacture, marketing, or labeling of the product.
Types of Product Liability Claims
Product liability claims may be based on a variety of legal theories. These include design defects, manufacturing defects, breach of warranty, and misrepresentation (failure to warn).
Design defects: Design defects arise when a product is flawed from the inception of its design. For instance, if a vehicle’s design increases the probability of it rolling over and causing serious harm in an accident, this would constitute a design defect.
Manufacturing defects: A manufacturing defect is a flaw in a product due to an issue with the manufacturing process. Such defects make products unfit for their intended purpose, thereby causing harm to the consumer.
Breach of warranty: A breach of warranty occurs when a product does not meet the terms of the warranty agreement, whether express or implied. For example, when a phone’s battery life significantly deteriorates right after purchase, the consumer can sue the manufacturer for a breach of implied warranty.
Misrepresentation: When a seller makes an inaccurate statement regarding a product, and which induces the buyer to purchase the product, this is a form of misrepresentation. It is always the manufacturer’s responsibility to disclose the inherent risks or side effects of using a given product.
Examples of Product Liability Cases
The following are some notable instances of product liability cases and how they turned out.
- In 2014, General Motors recalled 800,000 vehicles due to faulty ignition switches. The company’s negligence in the manufacture of the ignition switches had resulted in at least 124 deaths and 275 injuries. In 2020, GM paid out $120 million to customers due to loss of the residual value of cars that had developed these challenges.
- A 2015 International Agency for Research (IARC) study associated Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller with a predisposition to cancer among users. Since then, the company has paid out billions of dollars to plaintiffs in cancer lawsuit settlements.
- In 2018, Johnson & Johnson faced thousands of lawsuits related to its talcum powder products. The plaintiffs claimed that the products were linked to a heightened risk of ovarian cancer and mesothelioma. After numerous court rulings, the company eventually made a $2.1 billion settlement.
These cases highlight how companies may be held accountable due to design defects, manufacturing defects, breach of warranty, and misrepresentation.
Who Can Sue and Be Sued Under Product Liability Laws?
In the past, the “privity of contract” doctrine dictated that only the person who bought a defective product could seek legal action against product liability. However, with the introduction of consumer protection laws in many states, anyone can take legal action if they suffer harm due to a defective product, regardless of whether they purchased it directly or not.
It is vital to add that product liability laws can hold any party in the supply chain accountable for any harm caused by a defective product. Examples of parties that can be sued include manufacturers, assemblers, installers, wholesalers, and retailers who sell the product to the public.
Nevertheless, strict liability rules only apply to sellers who regularly offer products as part of their consumer operations, and not to casual, non-commercial sellers. So, for instance, a person who sells a smartphone on a platform such as Facebook Marketplace would not be subject to strict liability rules should the battery prove to be defective.
Product Liability Compensation
There are several forms of compensation that plaintiffs can receive following successful product liability lawsuits. These include economic and non-economic damages.
Examples of economic damages are lost wages due to missed work days and medical bills. In contrast, non-economic damages cover things like pain and suffering and emotional distress, which do not necessarily have a monetary cost attached.
How Are Product Liability Cases Handled?
If a defective product causes harm to a customer, they can attempt to reach a settlement with the company or file a civil claim.
In situations where multiple people have been affected, a class action or multi-district litigation may be pursued.
A class action involves bringing together many plaintiffs in a single case, with some appearing in court. On the other hand, multidistrict litigations combine similar claims under one judge to reduce time and resources, though individual plaintiffs may receive differing levels of compensation.
Why You Should Work With an Attorney for a Product Liability Claim
Hiring an attorney to represent you in a product liability claim is important. A lawyer can help you understand your product liability case by actively being involved in the research of applicable laws, evidence collection, filing paperwork with the court, and settlement negotiation. Contact or call us at 515-444-4000 as soon as possible for a free consultation.