Legal Theories in Product Liability Suits
Common law refers to laws that are created by judicial precedent rather than by statute. Privity of contract is a common law principle that states injured parties who are neither buyer nor seller cannot sue. Since the 1960s, product liability and common laws changed to permit liability without privity. Statutory laws were also enacted. This allows injured parties to sue, regardless if they were a party to the original purchase and sale agreement, a user, or even a nonuser.
The problems with consumer protection—laws designed to ensure the rights of consumers—under common law can be difficult to parse. Suppose Anna and Verzell go out to eat at a restaurant. Verzell orders macaroni and cheese and shares some of it with Anna. Later that night, Anna feels nauseated, runs a fever, and develops a severe stomachache. She goes to the emergency room and is hospitalized for one week. Anna suffered food poisoning at the restaurant from the macaroni and cheese. Anna did not buy the macaroni and cheese, but she may have a valid product liability case against the restaurant, the product manufacturer, or both. Anna was a patron at a restaurant, ate food that the restaurant served, and did not alter or change the food in any way. Therefore, although she was not the initial purchaser of the food product that led to her food poisoning, she may still have a right to pursue a cause of action because of the damages she sustained.
Another example of a product liability suit involved Francisco Garcia, who played professional basketball for the Sacramento Kings. In 2009 Garcia was balancing on a 75-centimeter Ledraplastic balancing ball. At the time, he was also holding weights, which is common when doing this type of exercise. While he was balancing on the ball, it burst, injuring him. As a result Garcia fractured his right forearm and missed the first four months of the basketball season. Given the nature of his injuries and the fact that the balancing ball inexplicably burst, Garcia and the Sacramento Kings filed a product liability lawsuit against the balancing ball company, seeking millions of dollars in damages and in lost salary. Eventually, Garcia and the Kings reached a settlement (resolution) with Ledraplastic.
Both these examples show that expansion of product liability laws has allowed injured parties to sue even if those parties were not involved in the original transaction.
Defenses in Product Liability
There are various defenses that can be raised to a product liability suit. For example, if a purchaser or user of a product uses the product improperly and subsequently gets hurt, the manufacturer might have a defense. The misuse of the product must be unforeseeable, unanticipated, or unintended, and the misuse must have caused the injury. For example, if someone uses a flat-head screwdriver to open a can of paint and subsequently gets hurt, the screwdriver manufacturer might still be responsible because this type of use could have been expected despite the fact that it was not the intended use. In contrast, if someone uses a knife to open a can of paint and subsequently gets hurt, the knife manufacturer will likely not be responsible because using a knife to open a can of paint would likely not be an expected use.
Another possible defense to a product liability suit is that the product was altered. If a safe product leaves the manufacturer and is subsequently altered after it leaves the manufacturer's control, the manufacturer might have a defense if someone is injured as a result of the alteration. For instance, a company might manufacture safety goggles that work as intended. Someone buys a pair and cuts holes in the sides to allow cooler air in. If that person later becomes injured because of chemical spatter that leaked in from the sides of the goggles, then the manufacturer likely has a defense against liability.
A third possible defense to a product liability suit involves the improper conduct of the injured party. Known as comparative fault, this defense permits plaintiff and defendant to compare their liability for an accident and allows awards for damages to be adjusted in proportion to that fault. If the injured party negligently uses a product, for example, this will not defeat a claim based on strict liability even if their negligence resulted in the injury. It can, however, potentially reduce the amount of damages in relation to their comparative fault. For example, if the injured party is found to be 30 percent at fault, their damages could be reduced by 30 percent as a result of their comparative fault.Another defense to product liability suits is assumption of risk. Assumption of risk occurs when the plaintiff knew that the way they were using the product could lead to injury or malfunction and proceeded using the product in that manner despite this knowledge.