Product Liability Law — Some Legal Background

In a product liability case, the plaintiff argues that the manufacturer of a certain product is responsible for any personal injury or damage to property as a result of a product defect or the manufacturer’s misrepresentations of the product.

The defendant in such cases would try to prove that the plaintiff’s argument is false and that they should not be held liable because their product is not defective and they have not misrepresented it; or that the injury was caused by the plaintiff’s own fault in using the product.

Tort and Contract Laws

Product liability law is a hybrid, comprised of laws related to torts and contracts. Tort-related laws include negligence, strict liability and deceit; while contract-related are mostly those that govern warranties.

Because of the wide coverage of product liability laws, a plaintiff may file a case based on negligence, breach of express warranty, breach or implied warranty of fitness, or fraud.

A Brief History

The English courts followed the doctrine of caveat emptor or “let the buyer beware.” In caveat emptor, a buyer was supposed to protect himself from any defect in a product, whether overt or unknown, and could not hold the manufacturer liable for any damage or injury caused by the product. But through the years, the English courts have ruled that a seller implicitly guarantees that their product has no hidden defect.

For most of the 19th century, American courts still used the doctrine of caveat emptor. In the latter part of the 1800s the implied warranty rule was imposed by the US courts, but only if the plaintiff has a contract with the manufacturer. However, when manufacturers channelled their products through distributors and retailers, most of the end users no longer had any direct contract with the manufacturers, and therefore the customers were not able to recover from manufacturers.

The mid-20th century saw the start of modern product liability cases where end users were allowed to recover from manufacturers for defective products, even if the product was purchased from a retailer. Rules related to product liability were included by the American Law Institute (ALI) in the Restatement (Second) of Torts. From then on the product liability laws have developed and evolved and ALI recognized this development by approving the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability, in 1998.

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