Product liability laws vary from state to state, but the basic premise is that companies have a duty to protect consumers from potential hazards, even if the damage is primarily caused by consumer negligence or deliberate misuse. Courts have held that manufacturers generally have more innate knowledge about their products, so it falls on them to assume financial responsibility for injuries and property damage.
In order to provide a brief and straightforward explanation of product liability, it may be helpful to create a typical scenario involving a potentially defective product and the law.
In 2005, Joe WiseGEEK purchased a bottle of Glug Cola from a local convenience store. For reasons known only to him, Joe decided to shake the bottle vigorously. Moments later, the bottle exploded, causing shards of glass to puncture Joe's hand and face. Joe spent several days in the hospital, followed by weeks of rehabilitation for nerve damage. Today, Joe and his attorney are considering filing a product liability lawsuit against the manufacturers of Glug Cola. They contend that Glug Cola failed to warn consumers about the dangers of shaking their product before opening.
Product liability cases generally fall along three separate lines. The first consideration is a design flaw. Was there something inherently dangerous about the design of the bottles Glug Cola used to package their product? Product liability starts with the very first component providers, which in this scenario would be the bottle and cap manufacturers. Joe's attorney would have to prove that the bottles were too thin to contain a carbonated beverage, and that the Glug Cola company was aware of this problem and did nothing to correct it. Product liability lawsuits claiming design defects are notoriously difficult to prove, since many companies spend months or years testing their designs before releasing the product to the public.
Joe WiseGEEK's case could also be considered a manufacturing liability. The design of the bottle may have been acceptable, but the Glug Cola bottling plant used too much carbonated water in their supply lines. Many product liability lawsuits center around actual defects caused by poor manufacturing practices or a lack of quality control. The plaintiff's attorney would have to provide expert testimony on the proper construction of a product and compare it with the defective product which caused the injury or damage. In Joe's case, it would have to proven that the carbonation level of Joe's Glug Cola was significantly higher than industry standards. This would be highly unlikely in our scenario, but many product liability cases are won based on manufacturing defects.
The third line of reasoning involving product liability is called "failure to warn." Companies have an obligation to warn consumers about known hazards and dangers surrounding the normal, or even abnormal, use of their products. The usual solution is a warning label placed in a conspicuous area of the product or accompanying literature which details the known hazards. This is why consumers may notice Caution: Hot Beverage warnings on coffee cups or Not for Human Consumption labels on many inedible products. Some of these warnings may seem pointlessly obvious, but their presence helps companies defend themselves against frivolous product liability claims. In many states, if the plaintiff is even found one percent liable for the original accident, the company cannot be held entire at fault.
In the case of Joe WiseGEEK versus Glug Cola, his attorney can make the argument that Glug Cola failed to warn consumers against the dangers of shaking the product. Even if Joe's own actions seem to contribute to the accident, some states would allow the argument that Glug Cola should have included a Do Not Shake warning on the bottle. The court could order Glug Cola to redesign their bottles to prevent future Joe WiseGEEKs from being injured.
If Joe WiseGEEK had be injured in 1945 instead of 2005, his legal options against Glug Cola would have been far different. Product liability laws of that era generally favored manufacturers, not consumers. If Joe shook the bottle and it exploded, Glug Cola may have offered to pay his medical expenses privately or the courts may have held him completely responsible for his own actions. Modern laws product liability laws enacted in the 1960s work on the principle of "strict liability," which means manufacturers bear much more responsibility for the safety of their products, even if some consumers use the product irresponsibly.