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Proving Fault for Defective Product Injuries

Author / Coordinator:  
Minnesota
March 2007

Injuries directly caused by dangerous or defective products are sometimes easier to recover compensation than other injury cases.

Why? "Product liability" or the legal rules concerning those responsible for defective or dangerous products is different from ordinary injury liability law. And, this set of rules sometimes makes it easier for an injured person to recover damages.

Definition of Strict Liability

Ordinarily, to hold someone liable for your injuries, you must show that they were careless -- that is, negligent -- and that their carelessness led to the accident. With products sold to the general public, however, it would be extremely difficult and prohibitively expensive for one individual to have to show how and when a manufacturer was careless in making a particular product. Neither can the consumer be expected to prove whether the seller or renter of the product had a proper system for checking for manufacturer's defects, or whether the seller was the cause of the defect after receiving the product from the maker. Nor, finally, can a consumer be expected to check each product before using it to see if it is defective or dangerous.

For all these reasons, the law has developed a set of rules known as "strict liability" that allows a person injured by a defective or unexpectedly dangerous product to recover compensation from the maker or seller of the product - without showing that the manufacturer or seller was actually negligent.

Here's how strict liability works: If you have been injured by a consumer product, you are entitled to compensation from the manufacturer or from the business that sold or rented the product directly to you. Strict liability operates against a non-manufacturer who sold or rented a product only if it is in the business of regularly selling or renting those particular kinds of products. In other words, if you bought something at a flea market stall, garage sale or thrift store that sells all kinds of things but not any one type of item on a regular basis, strict liability may not apply.

Rules of Strict Liability

Regardless of what steps a manufacturer or seller says it takes in making and handling a consumer product, you can make a strict liability claim -- without showing any carelessness on the part of the manufacturer or seller -- if all three of the following conditions exist:

1. The product had an "unreasonably dangerous" defect that injured you as a user or consumer of the product. The defect can come into existence either in the design of the  product, during manufacture, or during handling or shipment.

2. The defect caused an injury while the product was being used in a way that it was intended to be used.

3. The product had not been substantially changed from the condition in which it was originally sold. "Substantially" means in a way that affects how the product performs.

States with a Slightly Different Rule

To recover compensation for your injuries in Delaware, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Carolina or Virginia, you are theoretically required to show that the manufacturer or seller was negligent in making or selling a defective or dangerous product.

However, these states have an additional rule that has the same practical effect as strict liability and makes the injury claim process proceed in virtually the same way. This rule is called by the Latin name "res ipsa loquitur" which means "the thing speaks for itself." It holds that if a product that has a dangerous defect is sold or rented, the defect speaks for itself. It also stands that someone in the manufacturing, selling or renting process must have been negligent - or else the defect would not be there.

In these states, as in all others, you must show that a defect existed and that it caused an accident. If you can do so, you are entitled to compensation for your injuries.

If You Were Aware of the Defect

Manufacturers and sellers have a defense to claims of strict liability that may be particularly important if you have owned the product for a while. That is, you may not be able to claim strict liability if you knew about the defect but continued to use the product. If it appears -- either from the condition of the product (which the manufacturer's or seller's insurance company will have a right to examine) or from your description of your use of the product -- that you were aware of the defect before the accident but used the product anyway, you may have given up your right to claim injury damages.

Watch the Time

Most states have laws limiting how long after a product is sold to the public the manufacturer or seller can be held liable under strict liability rules. The limits are usually from six to 12 years after the manufacturer initially sold the product. So, in a strict liability claim, you might need to determine how old the product is that injured you.