Products Liability – What Happens When Defective Products Injure People?

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In Pennsylvania, sellers of defective products are held strictly liable for injuries to consumers. In simple terms, the injured consumer does not need to prove carelessness or negligence in the manufacture or sale of the product. Instead, if the product was defective and caused an injury, the seller is liable.

What was the Law Prior to Products Liability (Strict Liability)?

Before 1966 when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court adopted the concept of strict liability, a person injured by a dangerously defective product had to prove negligence in order to obtain compensation. Specifically, the injured consumer had to prove that the manufacturer of the product was careless in the way it designed, manufactured or provided instructions and warnings for its products.

In 1966, the law became more consumer friendly and put an obligation on all sellers of products to make sure that the products were safe for their intended use, or else be legally responsible for the consequences. The purpose of the strict liability rule was to make sure that sellers had an incentive to provide safe products and to make sure that injured consumers would be compensated by sellers who could spread the cost out among all of the sales of the product.

How Does the Products Liability Law Work?

Under the strict liability law, any ?seller? of a product, which includes the manufacturer and any retail seller of a product, faces liability if (1) a product was defective; (2) the defect existed when it left its hands: and (3) the defect caused harm to a consumer. A product is considered defective if it does not have every element needed to make it safe for its intended use or contains any element making it unsafe for its intended use.

There are three type of defects: manufacturing defects, design defects and defects from absent or ineffective instructions or warnings.

A manufacturing defect exists when, although the product was designed correctly, there was a flaw in its construction. Examples include a ladder collapsing because of improper welds; a soda bottle exploding because of weak glass; or a tire blowing out due to bad rubber. A manufacturing defect is proved by showing evidence of a malfunction and eliminating a claim of abnormal use or alternative causes for the accident.

A design defect claim alleges that a product lacked proper safety features or included unsafe elements which could have been eliminated by a change in design. Examples include a power saw without a blade guard; a Ford Pinto with the gas tank in its crush zone which created an explosion hazard; or a three-wheeled ATV which is a rollover hazard. A defective design is established through expert testimony criticizing the unsafe design and showing that a safer alternative design was feasible at the time the product was manufactured.

A product can also be defective if it lacks appropriate instructions or warnings. Examples would include a hair dryer without warning of use near water or incomplete warnings or instructions about the use of dangerous power tools.

What Defenses are Available to the Seller?

Despite the strict liability law, sellers of products have certain defenses to products liability cases including ?Substantial Change? and ?Assumption of the Risk.?

First, a seller is only responsible for defects that exist at the time the product leaves its control. If the consumer changes the product, like removing guards, warnings or other safety features, and an injury results, the seller would not be responsible.

Regarding Assumption of the Risk, if the seller can establish that the injured consumer knew of the specific defect which caused his injury and, despite appreciating the danger, voluntarily chose to encounter the danger, he cannot recover. For example, if a user of a machine designed to grind up tree branches knew that the opening was unguarded and knew of the danger of having his arm injured by the blades and yet voluntarily put his hand in the opening to try to clear a jam with the machine still on, he might be precluded from recovery due to the Assumption of the Risk defense.

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