How is Product Liability Different from Medical Malpractice?

Healthcare providers use a variety of devices, instruments, and drugs in treating patients. Sometimes patients are injured because the drugs or devices used to treat them are defective. Other times, patients are injured because their doctors or health care professionals used the wrong course of treatment or made a mistake during a procedure. In many cases, patients are injured by a combination of both of these factors. The following hypothetical example illustrates the main differences between lawsuits based on product liability and those based on medical malpractice.

Betty’s Story

Betty, a 65-year-old woman with severe osteoarthritis in her right hip, consults with an orthopedic surgeon who recommends that she undergo a hip replacement procedure. Betty trusts the surgeon’s judgment and consents to the proposed surgery. At first Betty recovers well, but six months later she begins to experience severe pain and swelling in her right hip. She returns to the surgeon’s office. He advises Betty that the artificial joint has “failed” and must be removed and replaced.

Betty later learns that the artificial joint the surgeon used has been linked to a number of complications, including premature failure, and that a number of lawsuits have been filed against the manufacturer. Betty now has possible legal claims against both the hip joint manufacturer and the surgeon.

Product Liability Claim Against the Hip Joint Manufacturer

Betty’s potential claim against the manufacturer is based on product liability law. Manufacturers have an absolute duty to ensure their products are as safe as possible, and to reasonably disclose all known risks. If they fail to do so, and consumers are injured as a result, the manufactures may be liable under product liability law.

In Betty’s case, the hip joint manufacturer can be found liable if the hip joint is deemed defective – “unreasonably dangerous” for its intended use – or if the manufacturer failed to adequately disclose known risks associated with the replacement hip. It generally doesn’t matter if the manufacturer was completely faultless in introducing the product into the marketplace. To establish liability, all that matters is whether or not the joint is defective. This is called strict liability.

Medical Malpractice Claim Against the Surgeon  

On the other hand, Betty’s potential claim against the surgeon is based on medical malpractice law, which does require a showing of fault by a medical care provider. For example, in Betty’s case, the surgeon may be liable if he or she failed to adequately explain the risks of the procedure, including the risks specific to the artificial joint. The surgeon may also be liable if he or she improperly performed the hip replacement surgery, or negligently failed to detect any complications in a timely manner.

Statute of Limitations Differences

The statute of limitations is a law limiting the time in which a case can be filed. The statute of limitations for product liability cases and the statute of limitations for medical malpractice cases are different, and can vary from state-to-state. Patients should contact a lawyer to learn more about the statute of limitations laws of their state.