Strict Liability Rules and Defective Products

"Strict liability" governs most legal claims for injury caused by dangerous or defective products.

By , Attorney · University of Michigan Law School

In the realm of personal injury law, the fault concept of "strict liability" says that a defendant seller, distributor or manufacturer of a defective product can be liable to anyone injured by that product, regardless of whether the defendant did everything possible to make sure the defect never happened. The defendant's conduct doesn't matter in order to find fault for an injury under strict liability, in other words. While somewhat simple in theory, the strict product liability rule (and exceptions to the rule) can get complicated.

"Strict" Liability Means the Defendant's Behavior Usually Doesn't Matter

In most kinds of personal injury cases, the defendant's conduct in connection with the underlying incident is usually an essential aspect of the case. For example, in order to be considered liable in a personal injury lawsuit arising from a car accident or slip and fall, the defendant (the other driver or the property owner, respectively) must have done something (or failed to do something) that amounted to negligence.

Strict liability, in contrast, does away with the analysis of whether the defendant's conduct met or fell below a certain standard. The thinking here is this: If it were necessary for a consumer to identify and illustrate the specific unsafe or unreasonable conduct that occurred at some point along the timeline of a product's journey to the marketplace—including design, manufacture, and distribution—these kinds of cases would be nearly unwinnable. Courts and state legislatures recognize this, so strict liability is established law in product defect cases.

What the Plaintiff Must Prove to Win a Strict Liability Case

In a strict liability case, the plaintiff (the person filing a personal injury lawsuit) usually must show that:

  • the product was unreasonably unsafe or unreasonably dangerous when it was designed, manufactured, or sold
  • the seller expected and intended that the product would reach the consumer without changes to the product, and
  • the plaintiff was injured by the defective product.

Strict Product Liability is Not Automatic Liability

Simply because a plaintiff is required to prove less in a strict product liability case (compared with a negligence-based action) does not mean a defendant's liability is automatic. There are a number of ways a strict liability case can fail, or be successfully defended. The defendant might be able to show that:

  • the plaintiff used the product in a way that he or she knew (or should have known) could lead to injury, or used the product despite knowing of the defect ("assumption of the risk")
  • the plaintiff's own careless actions contributed to or were the only cause of the injury, including using the product in a manner for which it was not intended, or
  • some other person or event interacted with the product to such an extent that the product was not the real cause of the injury.

Learn more about defenses in product liability cases.

Types of Product Defects

There are usually three main types of defects when it comes to products: manufacturing defects, design defects, and inadequate warnings.

A manufacturing defect is the kind of defect that is limited to the particular product sold to the plaintiff, i.e. something went wrong while the product was being made, and the problem only affected that product (or a batch of products, as with a recall).

A design defect is something inherent in the design of the entire product line, making every product sold unreasonably dangerous for the intended use.

Finally, strict liability also applies to a defendant's failure to properly warn consumers about less-than-obvious risks posed by use of the product.

Who Can Be Sued for Strict Products Liability?

Manufacturers, distributors and retailers can all be sued for strict liability.

Manufacturers are the obvious defendants, since they are the ones creating the parts and/or assembling the products. However, because strict liability does not take into account the standard of behavior of those involved in selling consumer products, distributors and retailers can also be sued for strict liability.

That means even though a distributor might simply receive a product from a manufacturer and pass it on to a retailer without a chance for inspection, and the retailer can sell it to a consumer without any alteration in the product, a plaintiff consumer might still sue both. The policy behind this rule is that consumers should not be left without a legal remedy simply because they cannot prove who in the distribution chain was responsible for the product defect. Learn more about how product liability claims work.

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