What is Product Liability
Your son is playing with one of your cigarette lighters that he found in your coat pocket while you are taking a shower. Your son lights a piece of paper by accident. The fire spreads and burns the house down. Fortunately, no one is hurt.
You are enraged that your cigarette lighter was able to be operated by a 6 year old child. Can you hold the manufacturer and any sellers of that cigarette lighter responsible for your home fire?
The law calls this PRODUCT LIABILITY. The basis for making the manufacturer or sellers liable for the fire is by proving that they sold a cigarette lighter in a defective condition unreasonable dangerous for its use.
In many other areas of injury law, you must prove that a person was negligent and their negligence caused your injury. Product Liability Law is different. In Product Liability Law you simply need to prove that the product had a defective condition that made it dangerous to use and that it left the manufacturer in that condition and reached the consumer in mostly the same condition. If you prove that, the manufacturer and all sellers of the product are flat out responsible for any injuries or damage caused by their defective product. In the Law of Pennsylvania, this concept is called Strict Liability.
Theories of Product Liability
There are a number of different theories you can use to prove that the lighter was dangerous. First is that the product was improperly designed to allow even a child to light the lighter.
Second is the malfunction theory. This is based on the fact that a product simply did not work the way it was supposed to work. For instance, the lawn mower that you've used for the last year has a switch that automatically turns off the blade while the lawn mower is stopped. You stop the mower to clean out the grass around the blade and get sliced.
Third is the failure to warn. Your snow blower has rotating blades. There is nothing in the manual or on the snow blower that warns you of the rotating blades and where to avoid. You get hurt because of the lack of warning.
Fourth, there may be defect in the manufacturing process. Perhaps it was a loose bolt or simply a missing part in the manufacturing process of the snow blower. This is another basis for product liability.
Burden of Proof - Expensive Experts Needed
The burden of proof is on the injured victim to prove that a product was dangerous. You need to PROVE IT. Product liability cases often are expensive to prove because you have to hire engineers or other experts to prove a designed defect, a malfunction, or failure to warn. The cost to hire an expert can easily run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Therefore, there has to be a serious injury and a good theory of liability to even warrant trying to prove that a product was dangerous. Remember, often you are attacking big time manufacturers and big time retail sellers of the product who are armed with lots of money and lots of lawyers who are well experienced in defending product liability claims. You have to find a lawyer who is equally able to handle the product liability claim, spend the money to do so, and take the risk as well.
The upside to proving a dangerous product is that you don't have to prove negligence by the manufacturer or sellers. Liability is based on a dangerous product entering into the stream of commerce and injures a consumer. Pennsylvania Courts believe that to force an injured person to prove negligence would undermine the deterrent affect on manufacturers and sellers of dangerous products to make sure products are safe and also increase the victims' burden of proving his case.
Sometimes the Law of Pennsylvania doesn't make a whole lot of sense. This is one of those cases. For example, let's get back to the cigarette lighter. If the cigarette lighter did not have a feature to prevent children from using it, that could be seen as both a dangerous condition and negligence in designing the product. Negligence and Dangerous Products are woven together, but the Law of Pennsylvania tries to separate them. As a practical matter, the Law of Strict Product Liability is infused with Negligence. It is negligent to design and manufacture a lighter that can be operated. However, all the courts of Pennsylvania have stood by the theory that negligence has no place in strict liability law/product liability law.
In rare occasions it is not necessary to hire an expensive to prove that a product is dangerous. For example, a pitching machine is intended to deliver balls at a certain speed. Despite this, and for some unknown reason, the pitching machine delivers the ball at twice the speed that it was programmed to deliver hurting a batter in someone's backyard. In that case, so long as you could prove that the pitching machine was being used as it was intended to be used and as explained in the manual, and that the pitching machine was not that old, and that there were no other reasons that could exist for the delivery of a pitch at twice the normal speed, sometimes you may not need an expensive expert. The idea is that so long as you can prove that there was no other reasonable explanation for the pitching machine delivering the pitch at twice the speed it was supposed to, you have proven that it was dangerous without proving this specific dangerous condition.
Retailers & Sellers Liability
It is important to remember that all sellers are liable for a dangerous product regardless of their knowledge of the dangerous condition or regardless of the fact that they did not contribute to the dangerous condition. Under Pennsylvania Law, all sellers of a product that left the manufacturer in a dangerous condition and did not alter the product and continue to sell it to the stream of commerce are strictly liable.
Finding a Lawyer
The bottom line in product liability cases is that injuries must be serious enough to justify the expense of hiring experts to prove the dangerous condition of the product and the risk involved in a fighting a vigorous defense by the attorneys for the manufacturer and sellers of the dangerous product.