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Common Defenses to Product Liability Claims

Author / Coordinator:  
March 2007

As with all personal injury claims, a person who wants to bring a product liability claim must file their action within the applicable time limit, or "limitation period." The failure to do so will give rise to a statute of limitations defense by the defendant(s). In addition, some states have "statutes of repose," which bar actions brought after products reach a certain age, regardless of when the plaintiff discovered his/her cause of action.

One defense raised in product liability cases is that the plaintiff has not sufficiently identified who supplied the product that injured them. A plaintiff must be able to connect the product with the party(ies) responsible for manufacturing or supplying it. There is an exception to this rule, known as the "market share liability" exception, which applies in cases involving defective medications. When the plaintiff cannot identify which of the many pharmaceutical companies that supply a particular drug actually supplied the drug they took, each manufacturer will be held liable according to its percentage of sales in the area where the injury occurred.

Another defense a manufacturer might raise is that the plaintiff substantially altered the product after it left the manufacturer’s control, and this alteration caused the plaintiff’s injury. A related defense is that the plaintiff misused the product in an unforeseeable way, and that his/her misuse of the product caused the injuries alleged. Certain other defenses, which may vary from state to state, exist and should be discussed with an attorney.
Courts have held that a manufacturer may be relieved of liability for injury caused by a product in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user or consumer or to his property only if:

  • The product was substantially altered after it left the manufacturer’s control
  • The modifications were not foreseeable to the manufacturer. (E.G. a washing machine maker will not be liable if someone takes a bath in its washing machine and gets injured).
  • The changes to the product were a superseding cause of the user’s injury (the seller is not liable if a safe product is made unsafe by subsequent changes).

Additional defenses to Product Liability

A defendant in a product liability action can raise many of the traditional tort defenses, unless they are precluded under the theory of strict liability, as well as certain defenses unique to product liability actions. The availability of these defenses will vary from state to state.

A plaintiff’s own negligence will not defeat a strict liability claim. However, it may reduce the potential damages based upon the degree of the plaintiff’s comparative fault.

If a person knowingly and unreasonably assumes the risk of a known danger, the manufacturer cannot be liable for the injuries that result. Thus, a person who intentionally electrocutes himself inserting a fork into an electrical outlet will not be able to recover injuries from the outlet maker. Likewise, if a product has an obvious risk of injury, then the buyer cannot recover for those injuries from the manufacturer. For example, a beer distiller will not be held liable if someone gets drunk from drinking its beer.

Some products, such as experimental drugs, may be dangerous, but not unreasonably so. If the dangers are known to the public, and the seller clearly warns of the dangers, and properly packages and labels the product, the seller will not be strictly liable for making available a product that is inherently dangerous, but not unreasonably so for its intended purpose.

In cases of design defects, manufacturers may be able to escape liability on the basis of the "state of the art" defense, which asserts that the manufacturer has used the best available technology and design to make the product as safe as possible. If there is no safer known design, a manufacturer might not be liable for design defects.

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