Aside from high-profile criminal cases like the O.J. Simpson and George Zimmerman trials, few legal cases have sparked as much controversy as those based on product liability law. For example, in 1977, a man was awarded $125 million in damages against Ford for injuries he sustained when the gas tank in his Pinto burst into flames. Then in 1994, a New Mexico woman was awarded almost $3 million in damages against McDonald’s for third-degree burns she sustained from spilling hot coffee in her lap. Both cases serve as reminders that manufacturers and sellers are responsible for injuries caused by products they put into the marketplace.
Establishing Liability in a Product Case
There are generally three theories of liability in product liability cases: breach of warranty, negligence, and strict liability. In most product cases, the favored theory is strict liability because plaintiffs do not have to prove any fault on the part of either the manufacturer or the seller. In a strict liability case, the focus is directly on the product itself. If the product is proven defective – generally through competent expert testimony – or if the product’s risks were not adequately disclosed, liability attaches.
What Makes a Product “Defective”?
A product that is deemed “unreasonably dangerous” for its intended use is considered by law to be defective. A product may be defective in its design, or in the way it was manufactured. Manufacturers have a duty to ensure that their products are as safe as possible. However, some products, such as medical devices and drugs, carry certain unavoidable risks of use. In such cases, a manufacturer must adequately disclose those risks. Failure to do so renders a product defective in its marketing.
Mass Product Liability Cases
Anyone who has watched late-night television has probably seen commercials seeking recruits to become plaintiffs in mass product liability lawsuits. Products liability is a very popular area of law for plaintiffs’ attorneys because it’s a “no fault” contest – meaning once a product is proven defective, the only question is how much the injured person is owed.
Mass litigation against the manufacturers of asbestos has been going on for years. In addition, thousands of lawsuits have been filed against manufacturers of metal-on-metal hip implants, transdermal contraceptives, transvaginal mesh, and countless dangerous drugs over injuries reportedly caused by the products.
Product Liability Laws Vary By State
With very limited exceptions, product liability laws are state-specific, including the time-limits for filing a claim. As a result, each product case must be evaluated by an experienced and competent attorney in the particular jurisdiction.