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The responsibility of a manufacturer or vendor of goods to compensate for injury caused by defective merchandise that it has provided for sale.
When individuals are harmed by an unsafe product, they may have a cause of action against the persons who designed, manufactured, sold, or furnished that product. In the United States, some consumers have hailed the rapid growth of product liability litigation as an effective tool for Consumer Protection. The law has changed from caveat emptor ("let the buyer beware") to strict liability for manufacturing defects that make a product unreasonably dangerous. Manufacturers and others who distribute and sell goods argue that product liability verdicts have enriched plaintiffs' attorneys and added to the cost of goods sold. Businesses have sought tort reform from state legislatures and Congress in hopes of reducing damage awards that sometimes reach millions of dollars.
Theories of Liability
Negligence refers to the absence of, or failure to exercise, proper or ordinary care. It means that an individual who had a legal obligation either omitted to do what should have been done or did something that should not have been done.
A manufacturer can be held liable for negligence if lack of reasonable care in the production, design, or assembly of the manufacturer's product caused harm. For example, a manufacturing company might be found negligent if its employees did not perform their work properly or if management sanctioned improper procedures and an unsafe product was made.
Breach of warranty refers to the failure of a seller to fulfill the terms of a promise, claim, or representation made concerning the quality or type of the product. The law assumes that a seller gives certain warranties concerning goods that are sold and that he or she must stand behind these assertions.
Misrepresentation in the advertising and sales promotion of a product refers to the process of giving consumers false security about the safety of a particular product, ordinarily by drawing attention away from the hazards of its use. An action lies in the intentional concealment of potential hazards or in negligent misrepresentation. The key to recovery on the basis of misrepresentation is the plaintiff's ability to prove that he relied upon the representations that were made. Misrepresentation can be argued under a theory of breach of express warranty or a theory of strict tort liability.
Strict liability involves extending the responsibility of the vendor or manufacturer to all individuals who might be injured by the product, even in the absence of fault. Injured guests, bystanders, or others with no direct relationship to the product may sue for damages caused by the product. An injured party must prove that the item was defective, the defect proximately caused the injury, and the defect rendered the product unreasonably dangerous.
The history of the law of product liability is largely a history of the erosion of the doctrine of privity, which states that an injured person can sue the negligent person only if he or she was a party to the transaction with the injured person. In other words, a defendant's duty of reasonable care arose only from the contract, and only a party to that contract could sue for its breach. This meant that a negligent manufacturer who sold a product to a retailer, who in turn sold it to the plaintiff, was effectively insulated from liability. The plaintiff was usually without a remedy in tort because it was the manufacturer and not the retailer whose negligence caused the harm.
The privity doctrine dominated nineteenth-century law, yet courts created exceptions to avoid denying an injured plaintiff a remedy. Soon privity of contract was not required where the seller fraudulently concealed the defect or where the products were inherently or imminently dangerous to human life or health, such as poisons or guns. The decisions then began to expand these exceptions. Some courts dropped the fraud requirement. A concealed defect coupled with some sort of "invitation" by the defendant to use the product was enough. In a few cases, the term imminently dangerous was construed to mean especially dangerous by reason of the defect itself and not necessarily dangerous per se. For example, products intended for human consumption, a defective scaffold, and a coffee urn that exploded would be considered imminently dangerous.
The seminal case of Macpherson v. Buick Motor Co. 217 N.Y. 382, 111 N.E. 1050 (N.Y. 1916), broadened the category of "inherently" or "imminently" dangerous products so as to effectively abolish the privity requirement in negligence cases. It held that lack of privity is not a defense if it is foreseeable that the product, if negligently made, is likely to cause injury to a class of persons that includes the plaintiff. Because this is essentially the test for negligence, the exception swallowed the rule. The MacPherson case quickly became a leading authority, and the privity rule in negligence cases soon was ignored. Increasing public sympathy for victims of industrial negligence also contributed to the demise of the rule.
In warranty, a similar privity limitation was imposed, in part because warranties were thought to be an integral part of the sales contract. Beginning in the early twentieth century, an exception to the privity rule developed for cases involving products intended for human consumption (food, beverages, drugs) and eventually also for products intended for "intimate bodily use" (e.g., cosmetics) so that the warranty in these cases extended to the ultimate consumer. In the case of express warranties, which could be said to be made to the public generally, the privity requirement was abandoned during the 1930s. For example, a manufacturer's statement in literature distributed with an automobile that the windshield was "shatterproof" constituted an express warranty to the purchaser that the windshield would not break (Baxter v. Ford Motor Co., 168 Wash. 456, 12 P.2d 409 [Wash. 1932]).
But with respect to implied warranties, exception to the privity rule did not extend beyond food, drink, and similar products until Henningsen v. Bloomfield Motors, Inc., 32 N.J. 358, 161 A.2d 69 (1960). In this case, the New Jersey Supreme Court abolished the privity limitation generally and held that the implied warranties run to the foreseeable ultimate user or consumer of the product. The Henningsen decision, which also invalidated the manufacturer's attempted disclaimer of implied warranty liability, has been followed in almost all jurisdictions.
From 1930 to 1960, various legal writers and a few judges discussed the creation of strict liability in tort for defective products. The best-known judicial exposition of this view was California Supreme Court Justice Roger John Traynor's concurring opinion in Escola v. Coca Cola Bottling Co. of Fresno, 24 Cal. 2d 453, 150 P.2d 436 (1944). A number of justifications have been advanced for strict liability: negligence is often too difficult to prove; strict liability can be accomplished through a series of actions for breach of warranty; strict liability provides needed safety incentives; the manufacturer is in the best position to either prevent the harm or insure or spread the cost of the risk; and the manufacturer of a product induces consumer reliance on the expectation of the product's safety and should be made to stand behind the product.
Finally, in 1963, in Greenman v. Yuba Power Products, Inc., 59 Cal. 2d 57, 377 P.2d 897, the California Supreme Court adopted strict tort liability for defective products. Within a short time, strict liability swept the country and was, as of 2003, the law in all but a few states.
The duty to guard against negligence and supply a safe product applies to everyone in the chain of distribution, including a manufacturer who carelessly makes a defective product, the company that uses the product to assemble something else without discovering an obvious defect, and the vendor who should exercise greater care in offering products for sale. These individuals owe a duty of care to anyone who is likely to be injured by such a product if it is defective, including the initial buyer, that person's family members, any bystanders, and persons who lease the item or hold it for the purchaser.
Additionally, the duty to exercise care involves all phases of getting a product to the consumers or users. The product must be designed in such a way that it is safe for its intended use. It must be inspected and tested at different stages, made from the appropriate materials, and assembled carefully. The product's container or packaging must be adequate. The manufacturer must also furnish adequate warnings and directions for use with the product. The seller is proscribed from misrepresenting the safety or character of the product and must disclose all defects.
Breach of Warranty
Warranties are certain kinds of express or implied representations of fact that the law will enforce against the warrantor. Product liability law is concerned with three types of warranties involving the product's quality or fitness for use: express warranty, implied warranty of merchantability, and implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose. These and other warranties are codified in the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), which every state has adopted, at least in part.
An express warranty can be created in one of three ways: through an affirmation of fact made by the vendor of the goods to the purchaser relating to the goods, which becomes part of the bargain; by way of a description of the goods, which is made part of the basis of the bargain; and through a sample or model, which is made part of the basis of the bargain (U.C.C. § 2-313).
An express warranty can be words spoken during negotiations or written into a sales contract, a sample, an earlier purchase of the same kind of product, or claims made in publicity or on tags attached to the product. An express warranty is created when a salesperson states that the product is guaranteed to be free from defects for one year from the date of the purchase.
Implied warranties are those created and imposed by law, and accompany the transfer of title to goods unless expressly and clearly limited or excluded by the contract. However, with respect to damages for personal injury, the UCC states that any such contractual limitations or exclusions are "prima facie unconscionable" and cannot be enforced (U.C.C. § 2-719 (3)).
The implied warranty of merchantability requires that the product and its container meet certain minimum standards of quality, chiefly that the product be fit for the ordinary purposes for which such goods are sold (U.C.C. § 2-314). This requirement includes a standard of reasonable safety.
The implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose imposes a similar requirement in cases in which the seller knows or has reason to know of a particular purpose for which the goods are required and in which the buyer is relying on the seller to select or furnish suitable goods. The seller then warrants that the goods are fit for that particular purpose (U.C.C. § 2-315). For example, assume that the buyer tells the seller, a computer supplier, that he needs a high-speed computer to manage inventory and payroll functions for his business. Once the seller recommends a particular computer to handle these requirements, the seller is making an implied warranty of fitness. If the computer cannot adequately process the inventory and payroll, the buyer may file suit.
The action for breach of one of these warranties has aspects of both tort and contract law. Its greatest value to the injured product user lies in the fact that liability for breach is strict. No negligence or other fault need be shown. However, in addition to the privity limitation, certain contract-related defenses have impaired the remedy's usefulness. These include the requirement that the seller receive reasonably prompt notice of the breach as a condition to his or her liability, the requirement that the buyer has relied upon the warranty, and the ability of the seller to limit or disclaim entirely the implied warranties. These defenses are most appropriate in cases in which a product's failure causes economic loss. The trend has been away from strict enforcement of these defenses in personal injury cases in which the action is closer to a tort action.
The rule of strict liability applied in product liability suits makes a seller responsible for all defective items that unreasonably threaten the personal safety of a consumer or the consumer's property. The vendor is liable if he or she regularly engaged in the business of selling such products, which reach the consumer without any substantial changes having been made in their condition. The vendor is liable even if he or she exercised care in handling the product and if the consumer bought the product somewhere else and had no direct dealings with the vendor.
A critical issue in a product liability lawsuit is whether the product contains a defect, which is an imperfection that renders a product unsafe for its intended use. Design defects exist when a whole class of products is inadequately planned in such a way as to pose unreasonable hazards to consumers. For example, an automobile manufacturer's design of a vehicle with the fuel tank placed in such a position that it will explode upon low-speed impact can be classified as defective. In that case, products manufactured in conformity with the intended design would be defective. A production defect arises when a product is improperly assembled. For example, frames of automobiles that are improperly welded to the body at the assembly plant would be classified as a production defect.
In addition, something other than the product itself can cause it to be defective. For example, caustic chemicals should be packaged in appropriate containers. Improper labeling, instructions, or warnings on a product or its container also make a product defective. Dangerous products should carry warning labels that explain how they should be used, under what circumstances they are likely to cause harm, and what steps can be taken in an emergency involving the product.
The principle of proper labeling includes claims made in sales brochures, product displays, and public advertising. It extends beyond warranty or negligence law, because a seller is strictly liable to users or purchasers of the product who are not in privity with the seller.
A manufacturer who creates the demand for goods through print and broadcast media has the responsibility to determine that the product has the qualities represented to the general public. Some courts allow injured consumers to sue even if they have not read a certain label or advertisement. The standard is that if the advertisement is directed toward the public at large and makes claims that a normal consumer would take into consideration when deciding to make a purchase, then the manufacturer must stand behind that claim for every member of the public.
Cause of Injuries
The issue of causation of injuries can be complicated, particularly if the product involved is only an indirect or remote cause, or one of a number of causes. Regardless of the theory of liability, the plaintiff must prove that the product was defective when it left the hands of the defendant and that the defect was the cause of injury. These issues are ordinarily questions of fact to be decided by the jury.
When the evidence indicates that an injury might have been precipitated by several causes, the question becomes whether the cause for which the defendant is liable was a substantial factor in bringing about the injury. A defendant is not necessarily liable if he is responsible for the last cause or the immediate cause of the injury. For example, a person who was injured by a cooking pot that fell apart when the person removed it from the stove might not have to show that a defect in the pot handle was the only possible explanation for the accident. The jury could still properly consider whether a defect was a concurring cause of the accident, even if they found that the plaintiff misused the pot by handling it too roughly.
A manufacturer has the duty to make the product as safe as possible. If the manufacturer cannot do so, he has the obligation to adequately warn users and buyers of the dangers that exist. The concept of a reasonably safe product extends to all dangers likely to arise when the product is being used normally or in a way that can be anticipated, even if it is not the purpose for which it was sold. For example, a manufacturer might foresee that someone is likely to stand on a table and might be required either to make it sufficiently strong and stable for people to do so without sustaining injury or to warn customers not to stand on it.
No liability is extended to a manufacturer if a plaintiff was disappointed because he or she had unreasonable hopes for a particular product. Frequently, however, a consumer's expectations are clearly reasonable but are not met. For example, no one expects to find defective brakes in a new automobile.
In some instances, a defect might not be inherent in the product, but a consumer should be aware that care is needed. An average adult need not be warned that knives cut, that dynamite explodes, or that electrical appliances should not be used in the shower. A consumer who ignores hazards will not succeed in an action alleging product liability. However, many manufacturers print warnings about common-sense hazards to provide added protection from a lawsuit.
Traditionally, an individual must be at least as careful as a reasonably careful person. Increasing recognition has been given, however, to a more realistic standard—the occasionally careless consumer. Courts are now less interested in how obvious a danger is and more concerned with discovering how serious the risk is and how readily it could have been avoided.
A consumer who clearly misuses a product cannot recover if an injury results. For example, a person who disregards a printed warning that nail polish remover is for external use only cannot blame the manufacturer for making an imperfect product if he or she ingests it. In addition, the consumer is precluded from recovery if he or she continues to use a product that is obviously dangerous. The theory is that the consumer has assumed the risk. This rule applies, however, only to obvious defects and does not establish a duty for consumers to scrutinize every product they purchase.
Whether a consumer has assumed responsibility for using an obviously dangerous product or misused a relatively safe product depends on who the user is likely to be. The classic example is children's clothing, which generally must be at least somewhat flame-resistant, because children are less able to appreciate the danger of accidental fires.
Although manufacturers and sellers have a duty to take precautions and provide adequate warnings and instructions, the public can still obtain products that are unavoidably unsafe. A seller is not held strictly liable for providing the public with a product that is needed and wanted in spite of the potential risk of danger. Prescription drugs illustrate this principle because all of them have the potential to cause serious harm if used unreasonably.
The duty to warn consumers of unavoidable dangers presents special problems if certain individuals are likely to suffer allergic reactions. The law considers an allergy to be a reaction suffered by a minority of people that is triggered by exposure to some substance. Courts used to reject claims based on allergic reactions, reasoning that the product was reasonably safe and that the injury was caused by a defect peculiar to the individual. That approach has been abandoned, with manufacturers providing careful instructions on use and clear warnings about possible symptoms that suggest an allergic reaction.
Since the 1970s, groups of plaintiffs have filed consolidated lawsuits against the manufacturers of certain products. The makers of contraceptive devices, silicone breast implants, asbestos, and tobacco products have encountered this type of multiparty litigation. In many states, one judge is appointed to handle all cases involving claims against such a manufacturer. The litigation process can prove costly for defendants because they may have to defend themselves in many different states. The resulting verdicts or negotiated settlements can also be very expensive to companies.
Product Liability Reform
Businesses have sought relief from state legislatures and Congress regarding product liability, contending that the shifting legal standards make them vulnerable to even the most suspect claim. Some states have passed laws that provide manufacturers with the right to defend themselves by showing that their product met generally acceptable safety standards when made. This assertion is known as the state-of-the-art defense, which relieves manufacturers of the task of attempting to make a perfect product. An injured consumer cannot recover on the theory that the product would have been safe had the manufacturer incorporated safety features that were developed after the product was made. Consumer advocates have opposed such laws because they allow manufacturers to avoid liability. The advocates argue that these laws discourage innovation because higher safety standards are set as improvements are made.
Businesses have also attempted to set maximum amounts that persons can recover for punitive damages. Some states have capped awards for punitive damages. In 1996, President Bill Clinton vetoed a bill that would have limited punitive damage awards to $250,000, or two times the economic and non-economic damages, whichever amount was greater, stating that it would deprive U.S. families of the ability to fully recover for injuries caused by defective products.
In the same year, the Supreme Court imposed its own version of product liability reform with BMW v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559, 116 S. Ct. 1589, 134 L. Ed. 2d 809 (1996). The case involved an automobile purchaser who brought action against a foreign automobile manufacturer, American distributor, and dealer based on the distributor's failure to disclose that the automobile had been repainted after being damaged prior to delivery. An Alabama circuit court entered a judgment in the case of compensatory damages of $4,000 and punitive damages of $2,000,000. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously the punitive damages award was excessive. In this case, the Court devised three factors to assist trial judges in determining whether a jury's punitive damages award were excessive: (1) the degree of reprehensibility of the defendant's conduct; (2) the disparity between the harm or potential harm suffered by the plaintiff and the punitive damages award; and (3) the difference between the punitive damages award and the civil or criminal penalties authorized or imposed in comparable cases. The BMW case showed that there were limits under the Constitution to the amount of punitive damages that could be imposed.
Federal Preemption of State Product Liability Law
For the most part, product liability law is governed by state law. Occasionally, the federal government will move to preempt an entire area of product liability law from state control in order to protect a certain group of manufacturers. An example of this is the Federal Biomaterials Access Assurance Act (21 U.S.C.A. §§ 1601-1606), a 1998 law that protects suppliers of materials for implantable medical devices from "unwarranted" suits by laying out the permissible basis of biomaterials supplier liability. Under the act, a biomaterials supplier may only be held liable in three situations: (1) when the supplier is a manufacturer of medical implants under the act; (2) when the supplier is a seller of medical implants; or (3) when the supplier sold materials that did not meet contractual specifications of the manufacturer.
More problematically, a court will have to decide whether an area of product liability is affected by a federal law that does not expressly preempt product liability suits but may indicate the federal government wished such suits to be preempted. For implied preemption, the Supreme Court has recognized two subcategories: field pre-emption and conflict pre-emption. Under field pre-emption, a state statute is superceded when a federal statute wholly occupies a particular field and takes away state power to supplement it. Conflict pre-emption occurs when compliance with both the federal and state statute is impossible, and the state law stands as an obstacle to the legislative objectives of Congress.
An example of conflict preemption was Geier v. American Honda Motor, Inc., 529 U.S. 861, 120 S. Ct. 1913, 146 L. Ed. 2d 914, (2000), in which the Court ruled against an injured motorist who brought a defective design action against the automobile manufacturer under District of Columbia tort law, contending that the manufacturer was negligent in failing to equip the automobile with a driver's side airbag. The Court ruled the law suit was preempted in that it actually conflicted with Department of Transportation (DOT) standard, promulgated under National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, requiring manufacturers to place driver's side airbags in some but not all 1987 automobiles. The Court noted the rule of state law imposing duty to install airbag would have presented an obstacle to variety and mix of safety devices and gradual passive restraint phase-in sought by the DOT standard.
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Mulherin, Joseph. 2001. "Geier v. American Honda Motor Company, Inc.: Has the Supreme Court Extended the Pre-Emption Doctrine Too Far?" Journal of the National Association of Administrative Law Judges 21.