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What is Products Liability?

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May 12, 2022

In very simple terms, product liability holds a person or company legally and financially liable for harm that is caused when their product is defective. In the U.S. in 2020, nearly 11 million people were treated in hospital emergency rooms for injuries resulting from consumer products, with young children suffering some of the highest injury rates.

If you suffer injuries or loss as a result of a defective product, you may be eligible to bring a products liability claim against the manufacturer, retailer, or other party, and be awarded compensation for your loss. Whether or not you can file a products liability claim, and who you can bring it against, are technical legal questions that should be answered with the help of an experienced product liability attorney. If you would like to talk about your particular circumstances with a Delaware product liability attorney, our team at Morris James would be happy to answer your questions. You can contact us online or at one of our of local Delaware offices.

A product liability claim can be based in the legal theories of negligence, breach of warranty, or strict liability. Each one has different elements that must be proven to be successful in your claim. Your attorney will advise you which are relevant to your claim, and applicable in your jurisdiction. 

1. Negligence

Negligence is a general legal theory that holds a person liable for harm caused when they breach their duty of care to another person. Everyone in society is expected to act with reasonable care toward others, and some relationships, such as healthcare professionals and their patients, create a special duty of care. When someone is hurt because another person does not act with reasonable care, a claim of negligence may arise. Negligence can apply in a products liability claim when a manufacturer, designer, or other person does not act with reasonable care in their work and a defective product is produced.

In any negligence claim, the injured victim must prove four elements to be successful:

  • The defendant (e.g. the manufacturer) owed the victim a duty of care (e.g. to produce a product that would not cause harm when used as intended.)
  • The defendant breached that duty of care (e.g. by producing a faulty product.)
  • The victim was harmed (e.g. physical injuries or emotional trauma.)
  • The defendant’s breach caused the victim’s harm (meaning the victim was harmed because the product was faulty not for an unrelated reason.)

In a products liability claim, the people and companies in the manufacturing and distribution chain of a product owe a duty of care to anyone who could be reasonably foreseen to be harmed if the product is faulty. This could be the purchaser of the product, the user, or another person. For example, if a manufacturer produces a lifejacket or PFD, anyone who wears that lifejacket could be harmed if it is defective therefore the manufacturer owes a duty of reasonable care to all potential wearers of the lifejacket. If the lifejacket does not support the body weight indicated on the label, and someone is involved in a drowning incident while properly wearing the lifejacket, the victim (or their surviving family members) could bring a product liability claim based in negligence against the manufacturer.

2. Breach of warranty

By law, all consumer products come with certain warranties, which are basically promises or guarantees about the product. If a product warranty is breached, the consumer may have a products liability claim for the resulting harm. A warranty can be express or implied. Express warranties can be written or verbal, and could include statements made on packaging, instruction booklets, on the product itself, or by the salesperson.

Implied warranties automatically attach to all consumer goods by law. Implied warranties guarantee that the product is in good working order and can be used as intended (known as a warranty of merchantability,) and that the product is fit for any particular purpose communicated to the seller (known as a warranty of fitness for particular purpose.)

If a consumer buys a baking dish imprinted with the words “Oven, Microwave, and Dishwasher Safe,” this is an express written warranty that the dish can be used in these appliances. If the baking dish then explodes while the consumer lifts it out of the oven, this would be a breach of the express warranty. This would also be a breach of the implied warranty that the baking dish is fit for the purpose of baking. The manufacturer would likely be responsible for any harm caused, such as burns to the consumer. 

3. Strict liability

Strict liability does not apply in Delaware. Delaware is one of the few states that have not adopted strict liability for products liability, therefore, in Delaware, products liability is only based in either negligence or breach of warranty. 

With strict liability, the law holds certain people liable for harm without the requirement to prove fault. For example, in recent high profile baby foods cases centered around toxic heavy metals in commercial baby food, the plaintiffs are bringing cases in negligence and strict liability. To succeed in strict liability, they need only prove that:

  • The product was sold in an unreasonably dangerous condition.
  • The unreasonably dangerous condition existed when the product left the defendant’s control.
  • The dangerous condition caused the plaintiff’s injuries.

The plaintiffs do not need to prove any intention or fault on the part of the defendant. 

What is a faulty or defective product?

There are three general types of product defects in a product liability claim:

1. Manufacturing defect

A manufacturing defect occurs when a product is not properly made. Although the product may have been properly designed, it was not manufactured according to the design. With a manufacturing defect, there is generally only one defective product or batch of products. It can occur for many reasons - a machine malfunctioned, human error, storage facilities were inadequate, etc.

2. Design defect

A design defect is an error in the overall design of the product. The manufacturer makes the product accurately according to the design but it is defective because the design itself is defective. With a design defect, an entire line of products may be faulty, and it often leads to a recall for that product. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is a valuable resource for consumers trying to find out about current recalls on consumer goods.

3. Labeling defect

A labeling defect,  also known as a failure to warn or a marketing defect, happens when a product is not appropriately labeled to make it safe for the consumer. Prescription medications are a prime example of this. They come with a multitude of warnings about how and when they should be administered, how they should be stored, and other critical information. If a medication label fails to state, for example, that the product should not be given to children under the age of 6, that would be a labeling defect and could result in harm. 

Who are the parties in a product liability claim?

The plaintiff in a product liability claim is usually the purchaser or user of the product. However, it is possible for another person to bring a products liability claim if they were harmed by the faulty product, and it was reasonably foreseeable that they could have been harmed. Questions of “reasonable foreseeability” are technical legal issues that should be discussed with an attorney.

The defendants in a Delaware product liability claim will be the person(s) or business(es) who are responsible for the fault in the product. Anyone in the supply and distribution chain could be a defendant in a products liability case, such as:

  • Product or label designer
  • Manufacturer
  • Manufacturer or supplier of component parts
  • Distributor
  • Retailer/Merchant

An experienced products liability lawyer will help you to determine the potential defendants in your particular case. It is common for there to be multiple defendants in a products liability case. Your lawyer will consider legal and strategic factors, such as the strength of your case, the available evidence, the states in which the parties are located, and the financial ability of a potential defendant to pay compensation.

Product liability claims can be complex and should be handled by lawyers who are experienced in this area and tough enough to stand up to the large companies that are often involved, and their insurers. 

At Morris James, our attorneys have been standing up for victims since we opened our doors in 1932. If you have other questions about products liability, you may find answers in our Products Liability FAQs, or you can contact us online or call us at 302.655.2599 to learn more.

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