Strict Product Liability Laws

"Strict liability" rules govern most legal claims for injury caused by dangerous or defective products. We explain the concept here.

In a nutshell, strict product liability is a legal rule that says a seller, distributor or manufacturer of a defective product is liable to a person injured by that product regardless of whether the defendant did everything possible to make sure the defect never happened.

While simple in theory, the exceptions to the strict product liability rule can be somewhat complicated at times. This article discusses the rule and its exceptions in detail.

"Strict" Liability Means the Defendant’s Behavior Does Not Matter

Ordinarily in proving fault in an injury case, the defendant’s standard of conduct is essential. For a defendant to be liable, he or she must generally have behaved in a manner that falls below the conduct expected of the average, reasonable person.

However, strict liability rules -- like the one applied to strict products liability cases -- does away with the analysis of whether the defendant’s conduct met a certain standard. The strict product liability rule came to replace standard negligence rules in most states because it became clear that plaintiffs, who were injured by defective products through no fault of their own, often could not win their cases.

This was happening because it was too difficult to prove that the manufacturer behaved below a certain standard, or that nothing else caused the defect. Courts and state legislatures recognized that it was bad public policy to make innocent plaintiffs suffer the loss when products were defective, so strict products liability rules were enacted as law.

What the Plaintiff Must Prove to Win a Strict Liability Case

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

  • a product was sold in an unreasonably dangerous condition
  • 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.

Strict Product Liability is Not Automatic Liability

Simply because a plaintiff is required to prove less in a strict product liability action than in other negligence actions does not mean a defendant’s liability is automatic. There are a number of ways a case can fail, or be successfully defended:

  • the plaintiff used the product in a way that he or she knew 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
  • some other person or event interacted with the product to such an extent that the product was not the real cause of the injury.

Types of Product Defects

There are essentially three types of defects, 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 few products.

A design defect is something inherent in the design of the entire product line that makes 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 sell it to a consumer without any alteration in the product, a plaintiff consumer can still sue both. The policy behind this rule is that consumers should not be injured without compensation simply because they cannot prove who in the distribution chain was responsible for the product defect.

Once a plaintiff has sued a manufacturer, distributor or retailer, it is up to the defendant to prove who in the chain was actually responsible and recover what they were required to pay to the plaintiff.

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