Product Liability

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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The responsibility of a manufacturer or vendor of goods to compensate for injury caused by defective merchandise that it has provided for sale.

When individuals are harmed by an unsafe product, they may have a CAUSE OF ACTION against the persons who designed, manufactured, sold, or furnished that product. In the United States, some consumers have hailed the rapid growth of product liability litigation as an effective tool for CONSUMER PROTECTION. The law has changed from caveat emptor ("let the buyer beware") to STRICT LIABILITY for manufacturing defects that make a product unreasonably dangerous. Manufacturers and others who distribute and sell goods argue that product liability verdicts have enriched plaintiffs' attorneys and added to the cost of goods sold. Businesses have sought TORT reform from state legislatures and Congress in hopes of reducing damage awards that sometimes reach millions of dollars.

Theories of Liability

In most jurisdictions, a plaintiff's cause of action may be based on one or more of four different theories: NEGLIGENCE, breach of WARRANTY, MISREPRESENTATION, and strict tort liability.

Negligence refers to the absence of, or failure to exercise, proper or ordinary care. It means that an individual who had a legal obligation either omitted to do what should have been done or did something that should not have been done.

A manufacturer can be held liable for negligence if lack of reasonable care in the production, design, or assembly of the manufacturer's product caused harm. For example, a manufacturing company might be found negligent if its

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employees did not perform their work properly or if management sanctioned improper procedures and an unsafe product was made.

Breach of warranty refers to the failure of a seller to fulfill the terms of a promise, claim, or representation made concerning the quality or type of the product. The law assumes that a seller gives certain warranties concerning goods that are sold and that he or she must stand behind these assertions.

Misrepresentation in the advertising and sales promotion of a product refers to the process of giving consumers false security about the safety of a particular product, ordinarily by drawing attention away from the hazards of its use. An action lies in the intentional concealment of potential hazards or in negligent misrepresentation. The key to recovery on the basis of misrepresentation is the plaintiff's ability to prove that he relied upon the representations that were made. Misrepresentation can be argued under a theory of breach of express warranty or a theory of strict tort liability.

Strict liability involves extending the responsibility of the vendor or manufacturer to all individuals who might be injured by the product, even in the absence of fault. Injured guests, bystanders, or others with no direct relationship to the product may sue for damages caused by the product. An injured party must prove that the item was defective, the defect proximately caused the injury, and the defect rendered the product unreasonably dangerous.

Historical Development

The history of the law of product liability is largely a history of the erosion of the doctrine of privity, which states that an injured person can sue the negligent person only if he or she was a party to the transaction with the injured person. In other words, a defendant's duty of reasonable care arose only from the contract, and only a party to that contract could sue for its breach. This meant that a negligent manufacturer who sold a product to a retailer, who in turn sold it to the plaintiff, was effectively insulated from liability. The plaintiff was usually without a remedy in tort because it was the manufacturer and not the retailer whose negligence caused the harm.

The privity doctrine dominated nineteenth-century law, yet courts created exceptions to avoid denying an injured plaintiff a remedy. Soon privity of contract was not required where the seller fraudulently concealed the defect or where the products were inherently or imminently dangerous to human life or health, such as poisons or guns. The decisions then began to expand these exceptions. Some courts dropped the FRAUD requirement. A concealed defect coupled with some sort of "invitation" by the defendant to use the product was enough. In a few cases, the term imminently dangerous was construed to mean especially dangerous by reason of the defect itself and not necessarily dangerous per se. For example, products intended for human consumption, a defective scaffold, and a coffee urn that exploded would be considered imminently dangerous.

The seminal case of MACPHERSON V. BUICK MOTOR CO., 217 N.Y. 382, 111 N.E. 1050 (N.Y. 1916), broadened the category of "inherently" or "imminently" dangerous products so as to effectively abolish the privity requirement in negligence cases. It held that lack of privity is not a defense if it is foreseeable that the product, if negligently made, is likely to cause injury to a class of persons that includes the plaintiff. Because this is essentially the test for negligence, the exception swallowed the rule. The MacPherson case quickly became a leading authority, and the privity rule in negligence cases soon was ignored. Increasing public sympathy for victims of industrial negligence also contributed to the demise of the rule.

In warranty, a similar privity limitation was imposed, in part because warranties were thought to be an integral part of the sales contract. Beginning in the early twentieth century, an exception to the privity rule developed for cases involving products intended for human consumption (food, beverages, drugs) and eventually also for products intended for "intimate bodily use" (e.g., cosmetics) so that the warranty in these cases extended to the ultimate consumer. In the case of express warranties, which could be said to be made to the public generally, the privity requirement was abandoned during the 1930s. For example, a manufacturer's statement in literature distributed with an automobile that the windshield was "shatterproof" constituted an express warranty to the purchaser that the windshield would not break (Baxter v. Ford Motor Co., 168 Wash. 456, 12 P.2d 409 [Wash. 1932]).

But with respect to implied warranties, exception to the privity rule did not extend beyond food, drink, and similar products until

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Henningsen v. Bloomfield Motors, Inc., 32 N.J. 358, 161 A.2d 69 (1960). In this case, the New Jersey Supreme Court abolished the privity limitation generally and held that the implied warranties run to the foreseeable ultimate user or consumer of the product. The Henningsen decision, which...

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