Injuries Caused by Products: A Basic Overview

After you have been injured by a product, you might wonder what your legal claim might be. After all, after a car accident, you know that the at-fault driver's insurance will pay to make you whole. We also all have an idea of what it means to be an at-fault driver.

With products it is a completely different ball game. The parties against whom you can recover aren't obvious. How to prove your claim is not obvious. Sure, folks know in their gut that, if they were injured in a way that someone else could prevent, the law should entitle them to a recovery, but let's get a little more concrete than that. Below, we will cover the very basics of products liability.

First, who can you actually bring a claim against? You probably bought the product from a retailer, not directly from the manufacturer. Then, there is the wholesaler who probably sold the product to the retailer. Then, there is the actual manufacturer. The answer is usually that anyone that can be proved to have been a step in the supply chain, i.e. all three, manufacturers, retailers, and wholesalers, can be held liable if the claim is otherwise a good claim.

The chief and most common exception is the "sealed container" rule. This rule serves to protect retailers and other parties in the supply chain who receive sealed containers from the manufacturer if they had no reason to know of a defect in the product or reason to inspect the product. We obviously cannot expect retailers to inspect the contents of every bag of snacks.

Second, how does one prove a products liability claim? An issue that complicates, at least in theory, products liability cases is that there are often multiple causes of action, including negligence, strict liability, breach of warranty, or fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. In practice, all applicable causes of action are commonly pled, and the same operative facts go to proving each cause of action. To prove any products claim however, one must prove, by the usual civil standard (that each point is more likely true than not true):

  1. that he or she was injured by the product,
  2. that the injury was caused by a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user of the product, and
  3. the product at the time of the injury was in the same condition as when it left the control of the defendant.

First, proving that the plaintiff was injured by the product at first blush is a simple inquiry. Did the product cause the injury? However, hidden in this simple phrase is proximate causation. It is not enough that the product was a cause of your injury, it must be a cause for which "social policy" will recognize liability.

Foreseeability is one such limit on liability. Defendants are usually protected from liability in cases where the product is used in a way that could not be expected by an ordinary person. Defendants are still subject to liability in cases where there are intervening acts, if the intervening acts themselves are foreseeable.

Second, the plaintiff must prove that the injury was caused by a defect unreasonably dangerous to the user of the product. Any defect, to be a basis for liability, must be unreasonably dangerous. Proving that there is in fact a defect differs substantially based on what sort of defect is alleged. There are three types: Manufacturing Defect, Design Defect, and Warning Defect.

In manufacturing defect cases, all the plaintiff has to prove is that the product came from the manufacturer in a condition different from that intended by the manufacturer, and that the difference caused the injury. The plaintiff's attorney compares before the jury whatever remains of the product after the accident was different from the manufacturer's design. That issue is the "manufacturing defect" itself. After proving the defect, the plaintiff has to show that the defect was the cause of the injury, and that the defect made the product unreasonably dangerous. Against middlemen, rather than manufacturers, the plaintiff would have to prove that the plaintiff would have a good claim against the manufacturer, and further, that the particular middleman reasonably should have known of the defect.

In design defect cases, the plaintiff must prove that the design itself is unreasonably dangerous. The product came from manufacturer exactly as the manufacturer intended, the plaintiff was injured, and now the plaintiff must claim that the design of the product was unreasonably dangerous. This is frankly a complicated affair, almost always involving expert witnesses. The plaintiff's lawyer will usually use experts to point to either reasonable alternative designs or ways in which the design is unnecessarily dangerous.

In warning defect cases, the plaintiff must prove that the product was unreasonably dangerous and adequate warning was not given. In these cases, the manufacturer makes a product that is necessarily very dangerous, but the danger is not obvious on sight of the product. If in taking reasonable care, the manufacturer would have given warning for such a product, the plaintiff can probably prove a warning defect case.

Third, the product must be in essentially the same condition as when it left the control of the defendant. Manufacturers and retailers are not held liable for injuries caused by unforeseeable alterations made to the products they sell. They will be held liable, however, for changes made to the product that were fully foreseeable.

Beyond these three basic common elements to all products liability lawsuits, there are differences between the various causes of action: negligence, strict liability, breach of warranty, and fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. Some of the key differences are:

  • Negligence requires (not surprisingly) actual negligence on the part of the manufacturer making negligence claims harder to prove than the other causes of action in some situations.
  • Strict liability, while not requiring negligence, does not provide the remedy of punitive damages. It only provides the remedy of actual damages (which includes monetary costs of the injury and pain and suffering).
  • Breach of warranty cases will largely be governed by contract law, rather than the law of tort.

This was an attempt to provide a brief, basic overview of the products liability law in South Carolina. There is far more complexity than covered here in the applicable law of South Carolina.

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