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.
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.
In a strict product liability case, the plaintiff must show that:
See Strict Product Liability Laws for more on how these cases work.
In a product defect case based on negligence, the plaintiff must show that:
In a breach of warranty case, the plaintiff must show that:
For more detail, see Breach of Warranty in a Defective Product Case.
In a defective product case that is based on a "fraud" legal theory, the plaintiff must show that:
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.