What Consumers Should Know About Product Liability Lawsuits

  • If you’ve been harmed by a defective product, such as a drug or an appliance you bought for your home, you may have a legal right to compensation for your injuries under a product liability theory. Under this theory, generally, parties that put a product into the open market for consumers to buy should be responsible for the injuries it causes. This includes all parties connected to it, including the manufacturer, distributor or seller.

     

    The product can be very simple or complex, expensive or cheap. Defective products that could harm consumers include defective hip replacements whose metal leeches out into the blood stream; blood thinning drugs that increase the risk of a stroke; toys that can easily break apart and create a choking hazard for a child; or an SUV with tires that are prone to blow out, causing the vehicle to flip over at highway speeds.

     

    Maryland courts first adopted strict liability as a basis for a products liability legal claim in 1976. While in a negligence claim a plaintiff would need to show that the defendant failed to live up to a legal duty and harm was caused as a result, products liability cases aren’t based on negligence, and these showings aren’t required. Under a products liability/strict liability theory:

     

    • A party selling a product in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user, consumer or to his property is subject to liability for physical harm caused to the ultimate user or consumer, or to his property, if,
    • The seller is in the business of selling such a product, and,
    • It’s expected to and does reach the user or consumer without substantial change in the condition in which it’s sold.

     

    The plaintiff has the burden of proving the product is defective and it caused his or her injury. While there are many types of products liability cases, three common ones are:

     

    • Defective manufacture: There was a problem when the product was made. There weren’t enough quality-control measures to ensure the product would be safe; or components that make it up aren’t strong enough to withstand normal use; or the components weren’t put together properly. A device whose lithium battery is so cheap and poorly manufactured that it bursts into flames when recharging, or a tire whose treads fall apart after they heat up during normal use because of a bad manufacturing process, would be defective products because of their manufacture.
    • Defective design: In these types of lawsuits, the product’s components or how it was assembled aren’t the issue. The problem is how the product was designed or engineered, making it inherently dangerous (unreasonably dangerous during normal use). A part of an aircraft’s landing gear would be expected to bear a certain load given the aircraft’s design, weight and takeoff and landing conditions. If that part isn’t designed to handle the stress put on it during take offs and landings, it will probably fail and possibly cause a pilot to lose control of the plane, causing an accident and injuries.
    • Failure to provide adequate warnings or instructions for its proper use: The product is dangerous in some way that's not clear to the user or that requires the user to take special precautions or care when using it in order for it to be safe. For example: a possible side effect of a drug is causing fatigue, but there is no such warning on the bottle or its packaging and a person who uses it becomes fatigued, falls asleep while driving, and is injured in a car accident. There needs to be a connection from the lack of warning to the injury for this type of lawsuit to be successful.

     

    Any party in the product's chain of distribution or sale could be a defendant, including:

     

    • The manufacturer
    • The manufacturer of component parts that were defective
    • A party assembling or installing the product
    • A wholesaler
    • A retail operation that sold the product in its regular course of business.

     

    A plaintiff need not be the original purchaser of the item. It could be someone who received the item as a gift, bought it from the original owner or who was an injured bystander when the product failed. If a defective brake part in a vehicle causes an accident where a pedestrian is struck, that pedestrian could have a products liability case against those involved in making and selling the part.

     

    There are products that, even if used as advertised, are dangerous. Even those who properly use a chainsaw or chef’s knife could be injured. If these products weren’t sharp, they wouldn’t work for their intended purposes. For these types of products, users and consumers themselves are seen as the parties best equipped to minimize risk. These types of products could still be the subject of a lawsuit, however, if unavoidably unsafe products lack proper warnings or instructions on how they can be safely used.

     

    There are many potential defenses that a defendant may use to try to prevent or limit their liability or reduce possible damages in the case. They vary on the facts of the case and the applicable law in the jurisdiction. Some defenses are:

     

    • The product didn’t cause the injury: The factual and legal cause of the injury was some other product. If the plaintiff was harmed while working in construction because of exposure to a toxic substance, a maker of such a substance may claim it wasn’t their product, it was made by someone else. Or the defective brake part installed in the vehicle was made by a different company.
    • The plaintiff or another party is to blame: The plaintiff intentionally misused the product. He was driving at 120 miles per hour when the tire blew and caused an accident. The tire was recalled, notices were mailed to the plaintiff warning him to replace the tires, but he ignored the warnings. Or a power drill included warnings against specific actions that the user took anyway. The manufacturer of a part of aircraft landing gear may put the blame on the pilot or the airplane owner. Or the defendant may allege that the construction worker was injured because his employer didn’t provide sufficient safety equipment.

     

    Products liability cases require experts to determine whether the product is defective and why. Both sides of a lawsuit hire their own experts to help their side of the case. Defendants often fight these products liability cases very strongly, because they often involve accidents or incidents that may have injured dozens, hundreds or thousands of people other than the plaintiff. These are very technical cases, so an injured client seeking help may want to consider an attorney who has experience handing product liability cases.

     

    Despite these difficulties, a plaintiff can get a lot of satisfaction from a case that results in a positive settlement or a jury verdict in their favor. Because of their actions, a product may be removed from the market or changed to make it safer; otherwise, the bad publicity may steer consumers away from it. Plaintiffs in product liability suits may not only help themselves but others as well.