Strict Products Liability

Strict Products Liability in the United States

Note: For information about Products Liability, click here.

Strict liability, especially strict product Liability

A tort-feasor is said to be strictly liable where no inquiry into their mental state is made. That is, the negligence or willfullness of the tort-feasor’s act is irrelevant in torts of strict liability such as defective products. In cases of auto accidents strict liability is often referred to as “no-fault” liability since the inquiry does not focus on fault of the tort feasor but remedy to the injured. See the following cases:

Davis v. Gibson Products Co., Tex.Civ.App., 505 S.W.2d 682, 688.
Herbstman v. Eastman Kodak Co., 342 A.2d 181 (N.J.)

Strict Liability for Products

Common-law courts have long held that certain activities are inherently dangerous and that those who cause damage to others by engaging in those activities will be held strictly liable. More recently, courts in the United States have applied strict liability to defective products. Strict liability, however, is not absolute liability, as there are many defenses available to defendants in lawsuits based on strict liability, such as comparative negligence and product abuse.

Because of the importance of products liability, there are several entries devoted to the question of the “Products Liability”. Strict liability may also apply as a legal standard for products, even those that are not ultrahazardous. In some national legal systems, strict liability is not available as a cause of action to plaintiffs seeking to recover a judgment of products liability against a manufacturer, wholesaler, distributor, or retailer. (Some states limit liability to the manufacturer.) But it is available in the United States and initially was created by a California Supreme Court decision in the 1962 case of Greenman v. Yuba Power Products, Inc.

In Greenman, the plaintiff had used a home power saw and bench, the Shopsmith, designed and manufactured by the defendant. He was experienced in using power tools and was injured while using the approved lathe attachment to the Shopsmith to fashion a wooden chalice. The case was decided on the premise that Greenman had done nothing wrong in using the machine but that the machine had a defect that was “latent” (not easily discoverable by the consumer). Rather than decide the case based on warranties, or requiring that Greenman prove how the defendant had been negligent, Justice Traynor found for the plaintiff based on the overall social utility of strict liability in cases of defective products. According to his decision, the purpose of such liability is to ensure that the “cost of injuries resulting from defective products is borne by the manufacturers…rather than by the injured persons who are powerless to protect themselves.”

Today, the majority of US states recognize strict liability for defective products, although some states limit strict liability actions to damages for personal injuries rather than property damage. Injured plaintiffs have to prove the product caused the harm but do not have to prove exactly how the manufacturer was careless. Purchasers of the product, as well as injured guests, bystanders, and others with no direct relationship with the product, may sue for damages caused by the product.

The Restatement of the Law of Torts, Section 402(a), was originally issued in 1964. It is a widely accepted statement of the liabilities of sellers of goods for defective products. The Restatement specifies six requirements, all of which must be met for a plaintiff to recover using strict liability for a product that the plaintiff claims is defective:

The product must be in a defective condition when the defendant sells it.
The defendant must normally be engaged in the business of selling or otherwise distributing the product.
The product must be unreasonably dangerous to the user or consumer because of its defective condition.
The plaintiff must incur physical harm to self or to property by using or consuming the product.
The defective condition must be the proximate cause of the injury or damage.
The goods must not have been substantially changed from the time the product was sold to the time the injury was sustained.
Section 402(a) also explicitly makes clear that a defendant can be held liable even though the defendant has exercised “all possible care.” Thus in a strict liability case, the plaintiff does not need to show “fault” (or negligence).

For defendants, who can include manufacturers, distributors, processors, assemblers, packagers, bottlers, retailers, and wholesalers, there are a number of defenses that are available, including assumption of risk, product misuse and comparative negligence, commonly known dangers, and the knowledgeable-user defense. We have already seen assumption of risk and comparative negligence in terms of negligence actions; the application of these is similar in products-liability actions.

Under product misuse, a plaintiff who uses a product in an unexpected and unusual way will not recover for injuries caused by such misuse. For example, suppose that someone uses a rotary lawn mower to trim a hedge and that after twenty minutes of such use loses control because of its weight and suffers serious cuts to his abdomen after dropping it. Here, there would be a defense of product misuse, as well as contributory negligence. Consider the urban (or Internet) legend of Mervin Gratz, who supposedly put his Winnebago on autopilot to go back and make coffee in the kitchen, then recovered millions after his Winnebago turned over and he suffered serious injuries. There are multiple defenses to this alleged action; these would include the defenses of contributory negligence, comparative negligence, and product misuse. (There was never any such case, and certainly no such recovery; it is not known who started this legend, or why.)

Another defense against strict liability as a cause of action is the knowledgeable user defense. If the parents of obese teenagers bring a lawsuit against McDonald’s, claiming that its fast-food products are defective and that McDonald’s should have warned customers of the adverse health effects of eating its products, a defense based on the knowledgeable user is available. In one case, the court found that the high levels of cholesterol, fat, salt, and sugar in McDonald’s food is well known to users. The court stated, “If consumers know (or reasonably should know) the potential ill health effects of eating at McDonald’s, they cannot blame McDonald’s if they, nonetheless, choose to satiate their appetite with a surfeit of supersized McDonald’s products.”Pellman v. McDonald’s Corp., 237 F.2d 512 (S.D.N.Y. 2003). (1)

Resources

Notes

  1. “Business and the Legal Environment”, by Don Mayer, Daniel M. Warner and George J. Siedel.

See Also

No-fault Liability
Absolute liability

Strict Products Liability: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Strict Products Liability. This part provides references, in relation to Strict Products Liability, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Strict Products Liability by content types:

Laws and Regulations

US Constitution
Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

Federal Case Law and Court Materials

U.S. Courts of Appeals
United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

Presidential Materials

Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Strict Products Liability and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Strict Products Liability or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Strict Products Liability and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Strict Products Liability. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Strict Products Liability should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Strict Products Liability when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

Tools and Forms

Law in Other Regions

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