How Does a Product Liability Expert Explain the Applicable Liability?
Any time you purchase a product, you trust that the product is going to work as intended. As in, it’s not going to harm you when used properly, and it doesn’t pose any unnecessary risks. Obviously, some products carry innate risks that you assume when purchasing them; such as cleaning agents or things that utilize gas. However, it is the company’s job to ensure there are no abnormal dangers putting you at risk. When they fail to do that, they might be held liable for any damages or injuries caused.
This is called product liability, and while it’s very important for consumer safety, it’s also fairly complicated.
Today, we’re going to explain what product liability is, how it works, and how it might be used in litigation along with an expert witness.
Let’s get started.
What is Product Liability?
Product liability is a legal standard that holds manufacturers liable for the products they sell. Namely, it holds them responsible and gives consumers a way of fighting back when a manufacturer makes and distributes a faulty product.
The types of things covered by product liability can range from mass-faulty products that simply don’t work and garner a class-action lawsuit, all the way to products that cause injuries. However, a manufacturer is not automatically held liable because someone is injured using their products.
What Does Product Liability Law Do?
As we said, a manufacturer isn’t held legally responsible for every injury that occurs during the use of their products. Many everyday items pose inherent risks simply due to the nature of what they are.
For example, bleach can cause blindness if someone irresponsible starts splashing it around or doing out-of-the-ordinary things with it. It can also create a chemical gas if mixed with the right ingredients.
Those are inherent risks of buying and using bleach, and as long as the product is labeled properly to warn you of those inherent risks, the manufacturer probably won’t be responsible if you go dumping bleach in your eyes or mixing it with random chemicals.
However, imagine if a manufacturer of cleaning chemicals accidentally added those dangerous chemicals to their bleach right before sealing the product. Upon opening it, you become engulfed in a cloud of homemade mustard gas, and you develop serious, lifelong, breathing issues because of it. You had no idea that could happen, you didn’t mix the chemicals on your own, and the company did not provide the product as reasonably expected.
That’s what product liability is for. It makes sure that, when a company does something, whether to cut costs or by accident, and it results in injuries or other losses, consumers can fight back and receive compensation without the company being able to weasel their way out of the problem.
In essence, a standard for what a product is, what a customer expects the product to do, and what is an inherent risk and what isn’t, is set by industry professionals who do their jobs properly, and that standard is compared to the actions of a company embroiled in a lawsuit or other type of legal case to determine if the product was faulty and blame can be placed on the manufacturer. We’ll go over several examples of this in the following sections.
What Constitutes a Faulty, Dangerous Product and Triggers Product Liability?
As we said earlier, many products have inherent risks, and some end up being dangerous due to negligence on the behalf of manufacturers. Here are some more examples to help you understand product liability laws in a more practical way.
In this example, we’ll speak about bleach again.
Let’s assume that a bleach manufacturer has manufactured standard bleach, bottled it in an approved bottle with proper security lids installed, and labeled that bottle with all inherent risks you face when using it, the poison control number in case you accidentally make a mistake, and every other bit of safety information they’re legally required to put on the bottle of bleach.
You do some household cleaning, place the open bottle of bleach on your counter, and your dog gets curious. After climbing up on the counter, they knock the bleach over. Bleach gets into their eyes, and they might have consumed some; forcing you to take your pet to the vet’s office and seek treatment for their injuries.
In this scenario, it’s unlikely that the manufacturer of the bleach could be liable for those injuries. They created the product by industry standards, labeled everything to instruct you on its proper use and what to do in the event of an accident, and otherwise ensured that you knew the inherent risks of the product.
Injuries occurred due to you leaving the product open and unsupervised near your pets; not because the company did something wrong.
Imagine you purchase a new bike, fresh off the shelf at your favorite big box store, and it’s pre-assembled. You take your new bike for a ride while wearing all the recommended safety equipment and following the rules of the road.
Mid-trip, your new bike’s brake lines snap while you’re going downhill. You lose control of the bike, and you break your arm after ramming into a parked car. Upon investigation, you and your legal team discover that the bike manufacturer used metal wires that are not suitable for bicycle brake lines to save costs and increase their profits.
This would be good grounds for product liability, as you did everything you possibly could have done to ensure your safety, and the only reason something bad happened to you and the owner of the car you struck is because the manufacturer of the bike knowingly used inferior products to build a necessary part of the bike’s features; meaning that they distributed a faulty product and a serious injury occurred because of it. The manufacturer would have a hard time defending themselves in court because of this, and expert witnesses would describe where they went wrong.
You purchased a propane grill from a new grill manufacturer. It was on sale and seemed like a great deal. So, you decided to give this new brand a try.
Upon installing a propane tank according to the instructions, you turn on the grill and suddenly smell gas. Nothing lights, and then suddenly, the grill spits a ball of fire at you; potentially causing serious injuries.
Would the company be liable? This is a more complicated example, and it’s a better way of showing how many of these cases pan out.
Since there are a lot of factors to consider, and propane and propane products have well-known inherent risks, it’s not as easy as saying that the grill didn’t operate properly. Expert witnesses would need to be called in, the evidence would have to be examined, and it would have to be determined that the incident occurred because the grill was faulty; whereas, you might have used a faulty propane tank, didn’t buy the right type of tank, or you might not have installed the tank properly. All of that would need to be cross-examined with an expert witness’s testimony before concluding that the damage was caused by the manufacturer’s negligence.
How Product Liability is Used in Court
The vast majority of the time, you’re not going to have to worry about product liability. It typically only comes up when there is reason to believe it’s necessary, and the court system is usually involved. In other words, it usually becomes an issue when someone gets hurt using a product, and they decide to sue or press charges against the company that manufactured the product.
How is this concept used in court, though? Well, let’s take a look at it from both sides.
Applicable Product Liability Used by the Defendant:
When a manufacturer is accused of releasing a faulty product to the public, and someone has been injured by that product, a court case is usually started. Most of the time, this is a simple lawsuit seeking financial compensation for medical bills, emotional trauma, and similar issues stemming from the event.
In court, the defendant will be tasked with proving that they followed industry standards and are not responsible for what happened to their customers. As highlighted in our examples, this is not always easy.
Typically, an expert witness that also manufactures the product being talked about, or has done considerable work manufacturing the product in the past, will be joining the defendant’s legal team as a witness. This expert witness will usually describe exactly how the product is made, what steps are made to ensure it’s as safe as it can be, and whether or not they feel the defendant complied with the industry standard to protect their customer’s safety.
If the defense’s legal team can show that their client’s manufacturing and distributing practices align with the industry’s standards, they might be seen as innocent. This is certainly the goal of the defendant’s legal team, and their questions throughout the trial will likely reflect this goal.
Product Liability Used in Litigation by the Plaintiff:
On the plaintiff’s side, product liability is handled in a similar, yet contrasting, way. It is the plaintiff’s job to prove that the manufacturer created a faulty product and that they were in no way the cause of their injury or property damage due to misuse of a product with inherent risks. Refer to “Example A” in our example section.
This can be just as difficult for the plaintiff to do as it is for a defendant to prove their innocence. They will have to prove that the manufacturer did something wrong, and that will require the help of an expert witness from within the industry.
The plaintiff’s legal team will hire an appropriate expert witness to describe what the manufacturing process for that product is like, what should and shouldn’t be done, and where mistakes are likely to occur. When cross-examined with the evidence, this might prove that the manufacturer neglected the product during manufacturing, or it might prove that the plaintiff did something they were properly warned not to do upon purchasing the product.
How Getting the Right Expert Witness Can Help Prove or Deny Product Liability
Now, we’ve talked a lot about product liability expert witnesses, but what exactly are they, and how do they get involved in a court case?
Well, an expert witness is not like a traditional witness. They’re not someone who saw the alleged crime or civil act of negligence take place. Instead, they’re someone who works within a relevant industry and can use their expertise to determine certain factors about a case.
In terms of product liability, these expert witnesses are typically people at the top of their industry who manufacture products relevant to the case. For example, in one of the bleach examples we gave earlier, an expert witness might be another bleach manufacturer with no stakes in the case but a lot of knowledge regarding the manufacturing process.
Since the expert witness is so knowledgeable, they can lend their expertise to the court and help either legal team prove their client’s case.
Typically, you and your legal team will seek out an expert witness via reaching out to them and conducting a pre-hire interview. This interview is usually conducted by you and your team to determine whether or not the expert witness will be useful to your case or detrimental to it. If they can be useful, you might hire them.
The opposing team will likely hire their own expert witness that supports their side of the case. In either situation, the expert witness cannot be involved in the case personally, cannot have anything on the line depending on the outcome of the case, and cannot have previous or current relations with the people conducting the case. If so, they show a conflict of interest and can have their testimonies disregarded by the court.
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