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Legal Theories to Use (to Win) in a Product Liability Action

Legal Theories to Win a Product Liability LawsuitProduct liability lawsuits are some of the most newsworthy court cases. Many people have heard of large-scale settlements that can reach into the billions of dollars. For example, the makers of the weed killer Roundup recently agreed to pay $10 billion to settle over 10,000 product liability cases.

Another example is the hundreds of millions of dollars that automakers paid out for the defective Taketa airbags that they put in cars.

However, there is a lot that must happen from the time that the claim is filed by the injured person through the time that the defendant pays to settle a lawsuit that claims that their product harmed someone. In Illinois, the product liability law is found in 735 ILCS 5/. Part 21 specifically focuses on product liability law.

Here is what a plaintiff must prove in order to show that a product was defective and merits financial compensation.

The Different Ways to Recover for a Dangerous Product

The first thing to keep in mind is that there are actually several different ways of proving product liability. This is another way of saying that there is not one single product liability theory that is used in court. Plaintiffs will typically argue multiple types of product liability in their court filings.

The next thing to consider is that the defendant’s individual level of fault need not be proven in a product liability case. All that the plaintiff needs to demonstrate is that the defendant was involved in the stream of commerce that resulted in the plaintiff buying a defective product.

Strict Product Liability

The first theory of liability that plaintiffs will try to prove is strict liability. The seminal case for strict liability in Illinois case law is Suvada v. White Motor Co, 32 Ill.2d 612, 210 N.E.2d 182 (1965). The case held that product manufacturers cannot take steps to limit this type of liability. The manufacturer will be automatically liable for defects with strict tort liability.

In Illinois, this means that the product was unreasonably dangerous from the time that it left the plaintiff’s hands. Note the use of the word “unreasonably” here. The defendant is not an absolute guarantor of the safety of their product. It is just that the product cannot be unreasonably dangerous.

There are three ways that the seller of the product can be found strictly liable for the harm that it causes:

  • There was a manufacturing defect.
  • The product had a design defect.
  • There was an information defect such as the failure to warn of certain danger.
  • The product was defective when it left the defendant’s hands and it caused the plaintiff’s injuries

Manufacturing Defects

When there is a manufacturing defect, there is nothing wrong with the product’s design. Instead, something happens between the time that the product is designed and the time where it leaves the factory that causes it to become defective.

The key is that the product is more dangerous than the plaintiff would otherwise expect. In other words, the manufacturing defect must have made the product unreasonably dangerous.

Design Defects

Similar to manufacturing defects, the plaintiff must show that the design of the product was unreasonably dangerous for the intended purpose. Illinois courts will use one of two tests when deciding whether there is a design defect.

  • Would the danger of the product exceed what a reasonable consumer with ordinary knowledge would expect?
  • Is the design the cause of the injury and does the inherent risk and danger of the design outweigh the benefits?

Warning Defects

Sometimes, even if there is danger to the consumer, the manufacturer or seller of the product can escape liability if they adequately warn the consumer of the knowledge. Then, the consumer will be fully informed and they will have made the decision to have purchased with the full knowledge of the risks.

The plaintiff can win their lawsuit if they can show that they were not properly instructed about the proper use of the product. They may also prevail in their civil claim if they can show that the manufacturer knew of the dangers and said nothing. Usually, there must be a warning on the product’s label or instructions as to the danger.

If the plaintiff can prove all of these, they could win a strict liability lawsuit assuming that they were properly using the product for a foreseeable purpose. The defendant will often argue that the plaintiff assumed the risk when they purchased the product or that they had either altered or misuses the product.

In a best-case scenario, the plaintiff can win on a strict liability argument. In some cases, the plaintiffs can recover punitive damages with their product liability claims.

However, they will always want to hedge their bets in case they cannot win on that ground. Accordingly, you will see plaintiffs allege multiple causes of action in each product liability lawsuit.

Negligence as a Theory of Liability

After they allege strict liability, the plaintiff will always include an allegation of negligence in their product liability lawsuit. Instead of looking at the product itself, the lawsuit will look at the conduct of the seller or manufacturer.

It will proceed the same way as any negligence personal injury lawsuit would. In other words, the same four-part test that you see over and over again in all negligence cases is used here to prove that the defendant acted without reasonable care.

Namely, as a plaintiff, you must prove the following:

  • The maker or seller of the product owed a duty of care to the buyer.
  • The defendant failed to uphold the duty of case by failure to act as a reasonable manufacturer or seller would under the circumstances.
  • The plaintiff suffered an injury.
  • The plaintiff’s injury would not have happened but for the actions or in-actions of the manufacturer.

Breach of Warranty under Contract Law

Finally, a product liability lawsuit will almost always throw in a claim under Illinois state law that some type of warranty was breached. In Illinois law, there are several possible warranties that are effective when someone buys a product.

In 810 ILCS 5/2-314, there is a warranty of merchantability. In order to win under this theory of breach of warranty, a plaintiff must prove one of the following:

  • The product is not of fair average quality in its description
  • The product is not fit for its intended use because of the product defect.
  • The product is not of even kind, quantity or quality.
  • It was not adequately contained, packaged or labeled.

This type of allegation will usually involve a breach of both an implied warranty or breach of express warranty.

Product liability lawsuits are not always easy to prove as this is a difficult area of law. They often require product liability attorneys to work with scientific and expert witnesses to help convince the court that the defendant should be held responsible for the harm to the injured party. However, they will usually result in high settlements because the plaintiff is most often seriously injured.