"Product liability" is that area of the law which deals with determining who is responsible for injuries caused by defective or dangerous products. The rules relating to this area of law are somewhat different than those which are applied to other types of personal injury cases.
Generally, product liability cases may be placed into three categories: manufacturing defect, design defect, and failure to warn. A product has a manufacturing defect when the product does not conform to the designer's or manufacturer's own specifications. Manufacturing defects are flaws or defects that occur in the manufacturing process and may involve poor quality materials or shoddy workmanship. For example, a product that breaks apart and throws off component pieces when in use, causing injury, because a screw was not properly secured when it was manufactured would be said to have a manufacturing defect. These cases are the easiest to prove since the manufacturer's own design standards can be used to show that the product was defective.
Design defects occur when the design is flawed and the product is unreasonably dangerous even though it is carefully manufactured and meets the manufacturer's own design standards. In the previous example, if the product breaks apart because the placement of the screw according to the design allows it to work its way free, then the product would be said to have a design defect. In these types of claims, the plaintiff may need to present evidence that there was a cost-effective alternative design that would have prevented the injury.
A claim based upon failure to warn arises when a product has an inherent non-obvious danger that could be avoided through adequate warnings to the user. Thus, if the product breaks apart only when used in a particular manner but the product could include a warning to the consumer about this danger, then there may be liability for a failure to warn.
A person injured by a defective product may bring a claim based upon a theory of negligence. A manufacturer has a duty to carefully design, produce or market its products and if it failed to meet that duty, it will be said to be negligent. Likewise, if a seller knew or had reason to know that the product was defective or dangerous and placed it in the stream of commerce anyway, it will also be considered negligent. They will be liable to all who could be foreseeably injured by the manufacturer or seller's conduct.
However, proving why a product caused injury and that it was because the manufacturer did something wrong, or proving that the seller knew the product was defective, can be very difficult. The law has developed a principle called "strict liability" to make it easier for an injured person to recover damages. Under strict liability, the plaintiff does not need to prove that the defendant was negligent but only that the product was defective, that the defect made the product unreasonably dangerous and the defect caused injury. Responsibility for a defective product that causes injury may be imposed upon anyone in the chain of distribution. Potentially liable parties may include the manufacturer, a manufacturer of component parts, the wholesaler, the distributor and the retail store which sold the product to the consumer. The seller may still raise the defense that the plaintiff substantially altered the product after it left the defendant's control, or that the product was misused.
The theory behind allowing strict liability for product injuries is that the manufacturers and sellers are better able to absorb the economic cost of the injury by incorporating it into the cost of doing business, and can pass those costs onto the consumer in the form of higher prices. .It also provides an incentive to design safer products. Recently, however, this rationale has undergone re-examination and critics of strict liability have argued that it is unfair to impose liability without fault and that the higher cost of doing business hurts consumers in general. Currently, considerable pressure exists to "reform" the rules of product liability, and there is a great deal of uncertainty regarding the state of products liability law in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Because of this uncertainty in the law, and because product cases necessarily involve many technical details and usually require the testimony of experts in the manufacture and design of the product in question, it is important that anyone injured by a defective product consult an attorney experienced in the law of products liability.