Product Liability

Additional Information on Product Liability

Product liability is the area of law in which manufacturers, distributors, suppliers, retailers, and others who make products available to the public are held responsible for the injuries those products cause. Although the word “product” has broad connotations, product liability as an area of law is traditionally limited to products in the form of tangible personal property.

Theories of liability

In the United States, the claims most commonly associated with product liability are negligence, strict liability, breach of warranty, and various consumer protection claims. The majority of product liability laws are determined at the state level and vary widely from state to state. Each type of product liability claim requires different elements to be proven to present a successful claim.

Types of liability

Section 2 of the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability distinguishes between three major types of product liability claims:

  • manufacturing defect,
  • design defect,
  • a failure to warn (also known as marketing defects).

However, in most states, these are not legal claims in and of themselves, but are pleaded in terms of the theories mentioned above. For example, a plaintiff might plead negligent failure to warn or strict liability for defective design.

Manufacturing defects are those that occur in the manufacturing process and usually involve poor-quality materials or shoddy workmanship. Design defects occur where the product design is inherently dangerous or useless (and hence defective) no matter how carefully manufactured; this may be demonstrated either by showing that the product fails to satisfy ordinary consumer expectations as to what constitutes a safe product, or that the risks of the product outweigh its benefits.[2] Failure-to-warn defects arise in products that carry inherent non obvious dangers which could be mitigated through adequate warnings to the user, and these dangers are present regardless of how well the product is manufactured and designed for its intended purpose.

Breach of warranty

Warranties are statements by a manufacturer or seller concerning a product during a commercial transaction. Warranty claims commonly require privity between the injured party and the manufacturer or seller; in plain English, this means they must be dealing with each other directly. Breach of warranty-based product liability claims usually focus on one of three types: (1) breach of an express warranty, (2) breach of an implied warranty of merchantability, and (3) breach of an implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose. Additionally, claims involving real estate may also take the form of an implied warranty of habitability. Express warranty claims focus on express statements by the manufacturer or the seller concerning the product (e.g., “This chain saw is useful to cut turkeys”). The various implied warranties cover those expectations common to all products (e.g., that a tool is not unreasonably dangerous when used for its proper purpose), unless specifically disclaimed by the manufacturer or the seller.


A basic negligence claim consists of proof of

  1. a duty owed
  2. a breach of that duty,
  3. the breach was the cause in fact of the plaintiff’s injury (actual cause)
  4. the breach proximately caused the plaintiff’s injury.
  5. and the plaintiff suffered actual quantifiable injury (damages).

As demonstrated in cases such as Winterbottom v. Wright, the scope of the duty of care was limited to those with whom one was in privity. Later cases like MacPherson v. Buick Motor Co. broadened the duty of care to all who could be foreseeably injured by one’s conduct.

Over time, negligence concepts have arisen to deal with certain specific situations, including negligence per se (using a manufacturer’s violation of a law or regulation, in place of proof of a duty and a breach) and res ipsa loquitur (an inference of negligence under certain conditions).

Strict liability

Rather than focus on the behavior of the manufacturer (as in negligence), strict liability claims focus on the product itself. Under strict liability, the manufacturer is liable if the product is defective, even if the manufacturer was not negligent in making that product defective.

The difficulty with negligence is that it still requires the plaintiff to prove that the defendant’s conduct fell below the relevant standard of care. However, if an entire industry tacitly settles on a somewhat careless standard of conduct, then the plaintiff may not be able to recover even though he or she is severely injured, because although the defendant’s conduct caused his or her injuries, such conduct was not negligent in the legal sense. As a practical matter, with the increasing complexity of products, injuries, and medical care (which made many formerly fatal injuries survivable), it is quite a difficult and expensive task to find and retain good expert witnesses who can establish the standard of care, breach, and causation.

Therefore, in the 1940s and 1950s, many American courts departed from the MacPherson standard and decided that it was too harsh to require seriously injured consumer plaintiffs to prove negligence claims against manufacturers or retailers. To avoid having to deny such plaintiffs any relief, these courts began to look for facts in their cases which they could characterize as an express or implied warranty from the manufacturer to the consumer. The res ipsa loquitur doctrine was also stretched to reduce the plaintiff’s burden of proof. Over time, the resulting legal fictions became increasingly strained.

Of the various U.S. states, California was the first to throw away the fiction of a warranty and to boldly assert the doctrine of strict liability in tort for defective products, in 1963 (under the guidance of then-Associate Justice Roger J. Traynor). See Greenman v. Yuba Power Products, 59 Cal. 2d 57 (1963). The importance of Greenman cannot be overstated: in 1996, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (now known as the American Association of Justice) celebrated its 50th anniversary by polling lawyers and law professors on the top ten developments in tort law during the past half-century, and Greenman topped the list.

In Greenman, Traynor cited to his own earlier concurrence in Escola v. Coca-Cola Bottling Co., 24 Cal. 2d 453, 462 (1944) (Traynor, J., concurring). In Escola, now widely recognized as a landmark case in American law, Justice Traynor laid the foundation for Greenman with these words:

“Even if there is no negligence, however, public policy demands that responsibility be fixed wherever it will most effectively reduce the hazards to life and health inherent in defective products that reach the market. It is evident that the manufacturer can anticipate some hazards and guard against the recurrence of others, as the public cannot. Those who suffer injury from defective products are unprepared to meet its consequences. The cost of an injury and the loss of time or health may be an overwhelming misfortune to the person injured, and a needless one, for the risk of injury can be insured by the manufacturer and distributed among the public as a cost of doing business. It is to the public interest to discourage the marketing of products having defects that are a menace to the public. If such products nevertheless find their way into the market it is to the public interest to place the responsibility for whatever injury they may cause upon the manufacturer, who, even if he is not negligent in the manufacture of the product, is responsible for its reaching the market. However intermittently such injuries may occur and however haphazardly they may strike, the risk of their occurrence is a constant risk and a general one. Against such a risk there should be general and constant protection and the manufacturer is best situated to afford such protection.”

The year after Greenman, the Supreme Court of California proceeded to extend strict liability to all parties involved in the manufacturing, distribution, and sale of defective products (including retailers) and in 1969 made it clear that such defendants were liable not only to direct customers and users, but also to any innocent bystanders randomly injured by defective products.

Since then, many jurisdictions have been swayed by Justice Traynor’s strongly persuasive arguments on behalf of the strict liability rule in Escola, Greenman, and subsequent cases—including nearly all U.S. states, the European Union, Australia, and Japan— and have adopted it either by judicial decision or by legislative act. Notably, South Africa, New Zealand, and the U.S. state of North Carolina have soundly rejected strict liability; Canada continues to officially reject it but under American influence has gradually adjusted certain aspects of negligence and warranty law to make them more favorable to consumers.

Oddly, although the Greenman rule was transmitted to most other states via Section 402A of the Restatement of Torts, Second (published in 1964 after Greenman), the Supreme Court of California refused to adopt Section 402A’s “unreasonably dangerous” limitation upon strict liability in 1972. Thus, strict liability in California is truly strict, in that the plaintiff need not show that the defect was unreasonable or dangerous. On the other hand, in California, the defendant is allowed to introduce evidence in a strict products liability action that the plaintiff contributed to his or her own injuries.

Although the Supreme Court of California has since become more conservative, it continues to endorse and expand the doctrine. In 2002 it held that strict liability for defective products even applies to makers of component products that are installed into and sold as part of real property.

Consumer protection

In addition to the above common law claims, many states have enacted consumer protection statutes providing for specific remedies for a variety of product defects. Statutory remedies are often provided for defects which merely render the product unusable (and hence cause economic injury) but do not cause physical injury or damage to other property; the “economic loss rule” means that strict liability is generally unavailable for products that damage only themselves. The best known examples of consumer protection laws for product defects are lemon laws, which became widespread because automobiles are often an American citizen’s second-largest investment after buying a home.

Information compiled from Wikipedia