What is product liability?

Product liability refers to a manufacturer or seller being held liable for placing a defective product into the hands of a consumer.

The term "product liability," in a broad sense, is a descriptive term which is applied to a type of action brought to recover for injuries sustained by the use of a product. In a more restricted sense, it is a tort, or civil wrong, which makes a manufacturer or seller liable if its product has a defective condition that makes it unreasonably dangerous.

In the United States, there is no federal product liability law. Instead, liability must be based on state law. The laws vary widely from state to state.

Product liability claims may be based on negligence, strict liability, or breach of warranty. Each type of product liability claim requires different elements to be proven to present a successful claim.

Liability in products liability cases may be predicated on the theory of negligence. Under a negligence theory, there must be a duty imposed on a manufacturer, seller, or other supplier, with respect to foreseeable dangerous consequences of a product. The failure to adhere to such a duty constitutes fault, or negligence. In some states, negligence remains the sole basis of recovery for defective products.

It may be difficult to prove negligence in a product liability case. However, the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, which means "the thing speaks for itself," can help a plaintiff. The idea is that the defect at issue would not exist unless someone was negligent. When properly invoked, this doctrine shifts the burden of proof to the defendants. The defendants must then prove that they were not negligent.

Under strict liability, the plaintiff need not show negligence, only that the product was defective. One who sells any product in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to a user or consumer or his or her property is subject to liability for physical harm thereby caused to the ultimate user or consumer. This liability applies if the seller is engaged in the business of selling such a product and it is expected to and does reach the consumer without substantial change in condition. Strict liability has emerged as an independent theory of liability and not dependent on contract or warranty.

Warranties are statements by a manufacturer or seller concerning a product during a commercial transaction. Breach of warranty-based product liability claims usually focus on one of three types: breach of an express warranty, breach of an implied warranty of merchantability, and breach of an implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose.

Many states have also enacted consumer protection statutes providing for specific remedies for a variety of product defects. Statutory remedies are often provided for defects which merely render the product unusable but do not cause physical injury or damage to other property.

Responsibility for a product defect that causes injury lies with all sellers of the product who are in the distribution chain. Those in the distribution chain include the product manufacturer, a manufacturer of component parts, a party that assembles or installs the product, the wholesaler, and the retail store that sold the product to the consumer.

Under any theory of liability, a plaintiff in a product liability case must prove that the product that caused injury was defective, and that the defect made the product unreasonably dangerous. There are three types of defects that might cause injury and give rise to manufacturer or seller liability:

1. Design Defects - Present in a product from the beginning, even before it is manufactured, in that something in the design of the product is inherently unsafe.

2. Manufacturing Defects - Those that occur in the course of a product's manufacture or assembly.

3. Marketing Defects - Flaws in the way a product is marketed, such as improper labeling, insufficient instructions, or inadequate safety warnings.

There are potential defenses that a manufacturer or seller might raise. One is that the plaintiff substantially altered the product after it left the manufacturer's control, and this alteration caused the plaintiff's injury. A related defense is that the plaintiff misused the product in an unforeseeable way, and that his or her misuse of the product cause the injuries alleged.

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