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Products Liability

When you buy a product, you trust that it won’t harm you in some unexpected way. If you are harmed by some product you purchased, you may be able to hold the manufacturer or seller liable for your harm.

When can I Hold a Manufacturer Liable for Injuries Caused by Its Product?

A manufacturer, distributor, or seller is strictly liable for harm caused by a manufacturing defect, a design defect, or a warning defect, if they have placed a product with any of these defects into the stream of commerce.

What is “Strict Liability”?

Strict liability means that a manufacturer, distributor, or seller is automatically liable for harm caused by its products even if no specific wrongful act causing the harm is alleged.

Example: Jeremy manufactures bicycles in San Francisco and ships them directly to clients who order them online. His bikes are well-designed and carefully made. Jeremy takes every precaution to ensure that his products are safe. Nonetheless, he sends a bike with a loose chain to Lydia. The chain falls off while Lydia rides the bike, causing her to fall and injure herself. Lydia has no idea why the chain was loose, but can prove it was loose when it left Jeremy’s factory. She doesn’t know if Jeremy or any of his employees did anything in particular to cause the defect. She can hold Jeremy strictly liable for her injuries even though she can’t point to a particular wrongful act.
What is the “Stream of Commerce”?

The “stream of commerce” is the series of distributors and sellers a product passes through before it reaches the end-user.

Example: Good Time Bottles manufactures glass bottles in Modesto and sells them to major beverage manufacturers, such as Happy Hour Winery in Livermore. RalphCo Beverages in Hayward buys hundreds of cases of wine from Happy Hour Winery for wholesale distribution. RalphCo sells a few cases to Pauline’s Liquor in Oakland. Clint buys a bottle of wine from Pauline’s Liquor. This particular bottle has a shard of glass inside of it, which Clint swallows, injuring himself. Good Time Bottles, Happy Hour Winery, RalphCo Beverages, and Pauline’s Liquor are all part of the stream of commerce.

Each manufacturer or distributor is only liable if the bottle had the defect at the time they passed it further along the stream of commerce. If the bottle was in safe condition when it left Good Time Bottles, but was defective when it left Happy Hour Winery, then Good Time Bottles is not liable for Clint’s injury. The winery, wholesale distributor, and retail store would all be liable.

What is a Manufacturing Defect?

A manufacturing defect means that the product was manufactured in a way that does not match the product’s design.

Example: Alameda Power Tools manufactures an electric drill. The drill is carefully designed by a team of engineers and safety experts. It has never injured anyone when used as intended. Roger is a new employee on the assembly line. Although he is provided detailed instructions on assembling the product as designed, he misunderstands one of the steps and places one end of an internal electrical wire in the wrong location. A customer uses one of Roger’s drills and receives an electric shock. The customer was injured by the product’s manufacturing defect.
What is a Design Defect?

A design defect means that a product that was built as designed is unsafe. There are two tests for determining whether a design is defective: the Consumer Expectation Test and the Risk-Benefit Test.

What is the Consumer Expectation Test?

Under the Consumer Expectations Expectation Test, a product has a design defect if it does not perform as safely as an ordinary consumer would have expected it to perform. This test covers both the intended use of a product and the reasonably foreseeable misuse of a product.

Example 1: San Mateo Shovel Co. manufactures shovels for gardening. By design, the handle is made from balsa wood, which is very fragile. Clara is digging a hole in her garden. The blade hits a small rock under the soil. The impact causes the handle to break, and Clara falls down, injuring herself. As a gardener, Clara is an ordinary consumer of this product. She had an expectation that the shovel would not break when used in gardening, where small rocks are sometimes buried under soil. The product did not perform as safely as she expected. It had a design defect, and San Mateo Shovel Co. may be strictly liable for her injury.

Example 2: Yolo Yo-Yo Co. manufactures yo-yos. By design, their yo-yos are made using string that breaks easily with enough force. JoJo buys a yo-yo from Yolo to perform tricks at her school talent show. JoJo is very advanced, and performs the difficult “elevator trick,” which involves yanking the string with slightly more force than more basic tricks. The string breaks and the wooden body of the yo-yo flies into the audience, striking and injuring a student. JoJo is an ordinary consumer of yo-yos. Although this yo-yo was not designed with every trick in mind, it was reasonably foreseeable that a more advanced user would try a trick involving slightly more force on the string. The yo-yo had a design defect because it performed less safely than JoJo expected.

Example 3: Lev buys a top-loading washing machine. After stepping in mud, he decides to stand in the washing machine to wash his feet. This is a bad idea and he seriously injures himself. While the product performed less safely than Lev expected, his misuse was not reasonably foreseeable, and the Consumer Expectation Test does not demonstrate a design defect.

What is the Risk-Benefit Test?

Under the Risk-Benefit Test, a product has a design defect if the risks of the product’s design outweigh its benefits. This is determined by comparing the severity and likelihood of the risks with the cost, feasibility, and disadvantages of a safer, alternative design.

Example 1: Pittsburg Pencil Co. uses actual lead in its pencils (whereas most pencils are made using graphite). The likelihood of harm by lead exposure is quite high, and such harm could result in prolonged illness or even death. Pittsburg Pencil Co. believes that lead stays sharper than graphite. There is little difference in the cost or procedure of making pencils with graphite rather than lead. The risks of Pittsburg’s design outweigh the benefits, and their pencils have a design defect.

Example 2: Solano Soda Co. designs soda cans with “pop tabs.” These cans are popular with consumers because they are easy to open. They are also cheap to manufacture, and are therefore cheap for consumers to buy. However, if someone sticks their finger inside the open can, they could cut their finger on the sharp metal tab inside. This likelihood of such harm is relatively low, as consumers generally do not put their fingers inside soda cans. The severity of such harm is also relatively low, unlikely to result in serious injury or death. Solano Soda Co. could design its cans to entirely eliminate these risks; however, they would cost twice as much and would be more difficult to open. Under the Risk-Benefit Test, there is no design defect.

What is a Warning Defect?

A warning defect means that a product has inadequate warnings about potential risks. The adequacy of a warning depends on several factors, including:

  • If the manufacturer knows or should know about the risks,
  • The severity of the risks, and
  • Whether an ordinary consumer would recognize the risks without warning.

Example: Walnut Creek Water Cooler Co. sells electric water coolers to businesses. Their product poses a high risk of electrocution because users place a large, open container of water upside down atop the product, and water can spill onto the electric components. In light of this risk, the company should post clear warnings on its products so that users exercise more care. Otherwise, their product may have a warning defect.

If you have been injured by an unsafe product, there may be several parties you can hold liable. Call the products liability attorneys at Spencer Young Law today for your free consultation!

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