product liability

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Product liability is a doctrine that gives plaintiffs a cause of action if they encounter a defective consumer item. This doctrine can fall under negligence, but it is generally associated with strict liability, meaning that defendants can be held liable regardless of their intent or knowledge. It can fall under certain categories:

  1. Manufacturing defect, where the manufacturing of a product was done incorrectly
  2. Design defect, where the design of a product itself was unsafe and there existed safer alternatives
  3. Marketing defect, where there is inadequate warning of the product risks
  4. Breach of warranty, where a product breaches an express or implied warranty

In order to succeed on a claim for strict product liability, a plaintiff must show that: (1) the product was defective (2) when it left the defendant’s hand, and that (3) the defect caused the plaintiff’s injury. In assessing whether a product was defective, courts have adopted two standards: the consumer expectation standard and the risk-utility standard. Under the consumer expectation standard, a product is defective if its danger is unknowable and unacceptable to an ordinary consumer. According to Pennsylvania, the purpose of this test is to assess a product’s “surprise element of danger.” In assessing a consumer’s expectations, courts consider factors such as the nature of the product and its intended use. Under the risk-utility standard, a product is defective if its risk of harm outweighs the benefits of its design. In applying this standard, courts consider, among other factors, the magnitude and probability of the foreseeable harm, the instructions and warnings accompanying the product, the nature of consumer expectations from the product’s portrayal and marketing, as well as the available substitutes of the product.

While some jurisdictions apply both standards, others choose based on the nature of the case. For example, California held that when the nature of the incident is highly mechanical and technical, the risk-utility standard should be applied since ordinary consumer experience is insufficient to determine whether the product is defective.

[Last updated in August of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]