The right to design, manufacture, distribute, and sell products to American consumers comes with certain obligations, the foremost of which is the duty to ensure that those products are safe and do what they claim to. Unfortunately, not every product lives up to that promise, and thousands of consumers are injured annually as a result.
Product liability cases arise from goods which are defective in one of three ways:
Products can become defective at the manufacturing stage if lesser-quality or incorrect materials are substituted, shoddy workmanship is employed, or the manufacturer’s intended design is not followed correctly, and the resulting product is in some way faulty or dangerous.
A product can be defective even if its manufacturing process was without fault if the original design for the product contained an error which makes it inherently unsafe or ineffective at performing the role it’s intended for. Designs are deemed defective when a product’s risk greatly outweighs its benefits, or if a safer alternative was feasible.
Marketing Defects (Failure-to-Warn)
Products are defective if they don’t include clear and understandable warnings of all non-obvious dangers. Some products can never be made completely safe, such as a pesticide or an explosive, which is why manufacturers are required to include careful instructions which mitigate their risks to the greatest extent possible.
These issues arise across all types of products and can injure and negatively affect consumers in ways that are both predictable and unexpected, such as when a household cleaner like a floor wax contains a toxin it shouldn’t and sickens the person using it, or when an artificial hip comes loose and requires surgery to reattach it, or if a car airbag fails to inflate in an accident.
Common Product Liability Cases
- Dangerous and recalled prescription drugs
- Medical devices (e.g., implants, stents, defibrillators)
- Automobiles, motorcycles, and other vehicles
- Baby and children’s products (e.g., cribs, car seats, and pellet-firing toy guns)
- Household or workplace products containing asbestos, lead, benzene, or other toxic substances and chemicals
- Bacteria-contaminated foods which cause food poisoning
- Heavy machinery and appliances
- Electrical devices with lithium-ion batteries (e.g., e-cigarettes, vape pens, smartphones)
- Construction and repair equipment (e.g., ladders, scaffolding, power tools)
Who Can Be Held Responsible?
Under most jurisdictions, including Pennsylvania, a person injured by a defective product can seek compensation from the entire chain of distribution involved in getting the product into their hands, including:
- Product manufacturers
- Manufacturers of ingredients and components used in the product
- Product assemblers and installers
- Wholesalers and retail outlets
How Are Product Liability Cases Proven?
There are several legal theories that a product liability lawyer can rely on to seek compensation for a person injured by a defective product.
Breach of Warranty
At the most basic level, they can claim a breach of an express or implied warranty. Manufacturers and sellers of products make explicit claims about their products and the risks they pose. They are in breach of warranty when the product fails to satisfy those claims. Consumers are also entitled to certain basic expectations about the things they buy, the most basic of which is that they are not unreasonably dangerous when used as intended.
Many product liability cases do not require a showing that the manufacturer or seller of a product behaved in a negligent manner (i.e., that they failed to act with a level of care appropriate for the situation). Instead, these claims fall under the theory of strict liability, in which a party can be held responsible regardless of their behavior. All that must be proven in these cases is that the defendant manufactured, assembled, installed, distributed, or sold a defective product which caused an injury.
If the user of a product relied on claims made by the manufacturer or seller as to its safety and was subsequently injured, the makers and sellers of that product can also be held responsible if their advertising, promotion, or sales tactics downplayed or hid a potential hazard.
Consumer Protection Statutes
Many states also have specific laws protecting consumers from defective products. A common example is a “lemon law,” which is a law that compensates consumers who purchase a product which fails to meet acceptable standards for quality and functionality. Most lemon laws apply specifically to motor vehicles, though there are also lemon laws that apply to puppies and other pets.
It’s important to keep records and evidence that prove an injured party was exposed to the product and subsequently injured by it, as well as records proving the extent of their injuries. All parts, pieces, packaging, instructions, and receipts for the product should be kept. Photos of the scene where the injury took place and of the injury itself can also be helpful.
Plaintiffs injured by defective products may be entitled to compensation from multiple parties in the distribution chain.
Compensation may be for:
- Medical expenses
- Loss of wages and/or earning capacity
- Property damage
- Pain and suffering
- Emotional distress and loss of enjoyment of life
- Funeral expenses
Statute of Limitations
The time limit for filing a claim related to a defective product varies by state. In Pennsylvania, plaintiffs must file within two years after they were injured by the product. However, if the defect which caused the harm was fraudulently concealed, they have two years from the time they discovered the defect (or reasonably should have discovered it).