Products liability law is based on the responsibility of a manufacturer or other provider of goods to compensate users of the goods for injuries caused by defective or dangerous products. The basic idea underlying products liability law is that the companies providing the products are usually in the best position to prevent defective products from entering the marketplace, so if they fail to do so, they should be held accountable. The law in this area has evolved from the days of “caveat emptor” (let the buyer beware) to strict liability, in which manufacturers are responsible for injuries caused by their defective or unreasonably dangerous products even if they were not negligent.
In a San Antonio products liability action, the injured person, or plaintiff, must prove that there was a design or manufacturing defect in the product, or that the manufacturer did not adequately warn consumers about the product’s possible dangers; that the product caused the injuries; and that he or she was using the product in the way it was intended to be used, or that the manufacturer should have anticipated that the product would be “misused” in the way that it was.
Manufacturing defects are usually easier to prove than design defects. If a particular consumer’s gas barbecue grill explodes when first lit, for example, it is pretty clear that that grill was not manufactured as the designer intended it to be. A design-defect case, on the other hand, could arise if many or all grills of a manufacturer’s particular model posed a threat of explosion. Proving a design defect involves passing judgment on technical choices and usually requires expert testimony. In a design-defect case, the product may have been manufactured as it was intended to be, but the design was inadequately planned in such a way as to pose unreasonable hazards to consumers.
Manufacturers must warn consumers of a product’s potential dangers and instruct product users on any precautions they must take. Warnings must be conspicuous enough to grab the attention of a reasonable person, and they must clearly explain the nature and seriousness of the possible risks.
Proving causation in a products liability case can be complicated. The plaintiff must establish that the product was defective when it left the hands of the defendant and that the defect was the cause of the accident that led to the injuries. If the injuries could have arisen from several potential causes, the plaintiff usually must establish that the product defect had a substantial role in bringing about the injuries.
Possible legal theories that can be argued in a products liability case include negligence (lack of reasonable care in the manufacture or sale of the product or in warning about the product), breach of warranty (failure to fulfill the terms of a promise regarding the product), misrepresentation (giving consumers a false sense of security about a product’s safety), and strict tort liability (the product’s defect, although not the fault of the defendant, rendered the product unreasonably dangerous and the defendant is therefore responsible). Although there is no limit to the list of products that could form the basis of a products liability suit, some of the more common product categories include:
Alcoholic beverages. Alcoholic beverage claims are similar in many respects to claims involving adulterated beverages in general, but some aspects of these cases are specific to alcohol. Some states, for example, have specific statutes that impose liability on sellers of adulterated alcoholic beverages for injuries to the consumer and his or her family and property resulting from the use of the beverage.
Apparel. Products liability cases based on defects in apparel often relate to flammability, the presence of irritants in the fabric, defective construction, concealed foreign objects, or the slipperiness of footwear. All kinds of apparel can be involved, from standard shirts and pants to Halloween costumes and hard hats.
Asbestos. Personal injuries, deaths, and property damage have resulted from exposure to asbestos products, and many products liability suits have been brought to compensate the victims of that exposure. Plaintiffs have based their claims on strict liability, design defect, failure to warn, and civil conspiracy theories, among others.
Chemicals & cosmetics. Household chemicals and personal-care cosmetics can be the subjects of products liability lawsuits if they are defective and cause injuries. The plaintiffs in these cases must prove that the manufacturer or seller knew or should have known about the dangerous defects in their products.
Firearms. Although many victims of criminal or accidental shootings have attempted to prove that the guns used were defective and that the sellers or manufacturers were liable for their damages, courts have been reluctant to embrace that argument. One exception to holding these defendants liable exists with regard to “Saturday night specials,” which are notoriously dangerous and known to be used in criminal activities.
Food & agricultural products. All types of food and beverages, as well as agricultural products like crop care products and animal foods, can also lead to products liability lawsuits if they are defective and cause injuries. In many cases, if the plaintiffs can show that the defendants violated applicable laws, such as sanitary guidelines or pesticide limits, they will be able to prove that the defendants were negligent.
Machinery & tools. Machinery and tools can often lead to injuries, and when those injuries result from a product defect or a failure to provide adequate warnings, the manufacturer or seller may be liable. Defendants in these cases even have a duty to guard against misuse of their products, if they could have reasonably foreseen that such misuse would occur.
Medical products & devices. The line between products liability cases involving medical products and medical malpractice cases is sometimes blurry. Lawyers experienced in these areas can advise both plaintiffs and defendants on which law applies.
Motor vehicle defects. Motor vehicle manufacturers have a duty to use reasonable care in designing their products to ensure the safety of drivers, passengers, and even bystanders. Plaintiffs may have been contributorily negligent, however, and thus receive lower or no damages, if they failed to use their seat belts or child restraints, or were careless in some other way, such as by speeding or driving while intoxicated.
Pharmaceutical products. Drug manufacturers must comply with Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines for the manufacture, marketing, and sale of their products. Compliance with FDA standards will not, however, insulate a defendant from liability if its product otherwise proves to be defective. Drug manufacturers have a duty to warn about possible side effects of a drug. Often, a “learned intermediary,” such as a doctor or pharmacist, will be charged with the duty of passing those warnings on the patient. If the drug manufacturer advertises its product directly to the general public, however, the manufacturer may still have a duty to warn the public directly about the risks of taking the drug.
Recreational products. Recreational products that can be the basis of a products liability suit run the gamut from board games to amusement park attractions. As with all other products, manufacturers and sellers have the duties to use care in ensuring the safety of their products and to warn about potential hazards.
Tobacco. Tobacco products have been the subject of recent litigation in which the tobacco companies have been ordered to pay very large damage amounts for costs incurred as a result of smoking-related diseases. Although there is mounting evidence that tobacco companies may have known about their products’ harmful effects and kept that knowledge hidden, younger plaintiffs will have a harder time alleging that they were affected by that failure to warn, since the adverse consequences of tobacco use have been public knowledge for quite some time now.