Definition of 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.
Product liability in the United States
- 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. Failure-to-warn defects arise in products that carry inherent nonobvious 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.
Product liability in the European Union
Moves towards a strict liability regime in Europe began with the Council of Europe Convention on Products Liability in regard to Personal Injury and Death (the Strasbourg Convention) in 1977. On July 25, 1985, the European Economic Community adopted the Product Liability Directive 85/374/EEC. In language similar to Traynor's, the Directive stated that "liability without fault on the part of the producer is the sole means of adequately solving the problem, peculiar to our age of increasing technicality, of a fair apportionment of the risks inherent in modern technological production." However, the Directive also gave each member state the option of imposing a liability cap of 70 million euros per defect.
Rationale for and debate over strict liability
Strict products liability causes manufacturers to internalize costs they would normally externalize. Strict liability thus requires manufacturers to evaluate the full costs of their products. In this way, strict liability provides a mechanism for ensuring that a product's absolute good outweighs its absolute harm.
Between two parties who are not negligent (manufacturer and consumer), one will necessarily shoulder the costs of product defects. Proponents say it is preferable to place the economic costs on the manufacturer because it can better absorb them and pass them on to other consumers. The manufacturer thus becomes a de facto insurer against its defective products, with premiums built into the product's price.
Strict liability also seeks to diminish the impact of information asymmetry between manufacturers and consumers. Manufacturers have better knowledge of their own products' dangers than do consumers. Therefore, manufacturers properly bear the burden of finding, correcting, and warning consumers of those dangers.
Strict liability reduces litigation costs, because a plaintiff need only prove causation, not imprudence. Where causation is easy to establish, parties to a strict liability suit will most likely settle, because only damages are in dispute.
Critics charge that strict liability creates risk of moral hazard. They claim that strict liability causes consumers to under invest in care even when they are the least-cost avoiders. This, they say, results in a lower aggregate level of care than under a negligence standard. Proponents counter that people have enough natural incentive to avoid inflicting serious harm on themselves to mitigate this concern.
Critics charge that the requiring manufacturers to internalize costs they would otherwise externalize increases the price of goods. Critics claim that in elastic, price-sensitive markets, price increases cause some consumers to seek substitutes for that product. As a result, they say, manufacturers may not produce the socially optimal level of goods. Proponents respond that these consumer opt outs reflect a product whose absolute harm outweighs its absolute value; products that do more harm than good ought not be produced.
- Wiktionary. Published under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.