Products Liability

A Primer On California Product Liability Law

Every year innocent people are injured by defective products. The products may be as diverse as automobiles, medicines, medical devices, baby cribs, or hand tools. California product liability laws were fashioned to protect consumers against the dangers of injurious products and to provide compensation to consumers who have been harmed through the use of such products.

A product may either be defectively manufactured or designed. A product is defectively manufactured if the product has a defect that is not common to similarly manufactured products; in other words it comes off the assembly line differently from the way the product was designed. A product is defectively designed if there is a flaw in the way the product was conceptualized and designed. For example, if an auto manufacturer sells a single car which has bad brakes because an assembler didn't properly install them on that car, that vehicle was defectively manufactured. However, if the auto manufacturer's whole line of vehicles have bad brakes because the brakes on all their cars overheat under certain types of driving conditions, that would be considered a design defect as it applies to all of the cars coming out of the assembly plant.

Under California law, the definition of a design defect is stated in the alternative. A product may be deemed defectively designed if it fails to meet the ordinary consumer's expectations as to safety. Or, a product may be considered defectively designed if one is injured by the way the product is designed and the advantages of the design do not outweigh the potential risks of harm inherent in the product.

Once it is established that a product is defective, the injured person need not prove that anyone was negligent. The defendants in the case are strictly liable for the damages caused by the defective product. If it can be shown that the manufacturer knew of the dangers in the product and acted with a conscious disregard of public safety in continuing to sell the product, punitive damages can be assessed to punish the manufacturer.

Potential defendants in a product liability lawsuit include anyone in the commercial chain of distribution. This includes the manufacturer of the product, the wholesaler, and the retailer. It does not generally include second hand sellers of products.

The manufacturers and other sellers have defenses that can be asserted against a products liability claim. It is a defense if the product were misused in an unforeseeable manner. The defendant's degree of fault may also be lessened if the person using the product negligently contributed to his own injury.

The product liability laws have provided needed compensation to California consumers for generations, but they have also been useful in reforming unsafe industry practices, and providing the public with safer products.

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