Product Liability Claims - Legal Overview

If you've been injured by a dangerous or defective product, here are the legal elements you'd need to prove in order to get compensation.

If a consumer is injured by a defective product, the resulting "product liability" claim can be based on several different legal theories. This article outlines the elements of the most common legal theories used in product liability claims: strict liability, negligence, breach of warranty, and fraud.

One Case Can Employ Several Legal Theories

A consumer who has been injured by a product defect or because of an inadequate warning can use as many legal theories as apply to his or her lawsuit. In other words, he or she will not be forced to guess which theory is best and then stick with that one course.

However, because strict liability was designed to replace negligence in product liability cases, an injured plaintiff often will not sue under both a strict liability theory and a negligence theory.

Strict Product Liability

In a strict product liability case, the plaintiff must show that:

  • a product was sold in an unreasonably dangerous condition or with an inadequate warning
  • the seller expected and intended that the product would reach the consumer without changes to the product, and
  • the plaintiff or the plaintiff’s property was injured by the defective product.

See Strict Product Liability Laws for more on how these cases work.

Negligence

In a product defect case based on negligence, the plaintiff must show that:

  • the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of reasonable care under the circumstances (i.e. making or selling a product free from dangerous defects and unknown risks)
  • the defendant’s actions breached the duty of reasonable care owed to the plaintiff
  • the defendant’s breach was the main or only cause of the plaintiff’s injuries, and
  • the plaintiff actually suffered some kind of injury

Breach of Warranty

In a breach of warranty case, the plaintiff must show that:

  • an express or implied warranty applied to the product, and
  • the product did not meet the terms of the warranty

For more detail, see Breach of Warranty in a Defective Product Case.

Fraud

In a defective product case that is based on a "fraud" legal theory, the plaintiff must show that:

  • the defendant made certain representations about the product
  • those representations were not true
  • the defendant knew the representations were not true or not likely to be true
  • the defendant made the representations so that the plaintiff would buy the product
  • the plaintiff was justified in relying on the defendant’s representations, and
  • the plaintiff was damaged in some way as a result of the defendant’s false representations.

Strict Products Liability Is Typically the Main Theory

For two main reasons, strict products liability will be the main focus of a plaintiff’s dangerous or defective product case, and will represent the biggest threat to a defendant.

First of all, a plaintiff must prove more elements to win a negligence or fraud case. The plaintiff's "burden of proof" is easier to meet in a strict liability, as detailed in the sections above.

Second, strict liability allows a plaintiff to recover the full range of damages typical to a tort case -- in contrast, compensation in a breach of warranty case can often be limited to concrete economic damages (e.g. damage to property, medical bills, etc.), and usually excludes pain and suffering damages.

However, if the facts of the case actually fit a fraud theory, a defendant may have to pay punitive damages based on its intentional deception. In those somewhat rarer product liability cases that do involve fraud, the punitive damages award can end up being quite high because they are typically set relative to a defendant’s wealth. A recent example would be the multi-million dollar verdicts in suits against tobacco companies.

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