We use household products every day with little thought given to their manufacturing or distribution process. When we buy a product, we have the reasonable expectation that it’s safe for use. When a product defect leads to injury, you may have legal grounds for a personal injury claim with one of our Billings product liability attorneys.
There are many types of product defect cases, and they usually involve negligence in one of the following categories:
- Failure to provide adequate instruction or warn appropriately of the risks. These types of claims usually involve a product that is inherently dangerous in a way that might not be obvious to the user. It may also require the user to take special precautions while using it. An example of this type of claim might include failing to warn that a cleaning agent releases a noxious gas that requires ventilation, or a medicine that fails to disclose side effects like dizziness or drowsiness.
- An inherent flaw in the design of a product. A flaw in a product’s design may cause unintended injuries to a user. With this this type of claim, the whole line of a product is affected. Examples of design flaws include an SUV prone to rollover, tires prone to blowouts, or sunglasses that don’t protect against UV rays.
- Defective manufacturing. A product may be designed well, but something may go wrong during its manufacture. When this occurs, the whole line of products may not be affected. Examples of defective manufacturing include a swing with a bad chain or a batch of cereal tainted with E.coli.
Proving Product Liability Claims
The success of your product liability claim hinges on providing sufficient evidence for the following four elements:
- You were injured or incurred specific damages (e.g., your house was set on fire).
- The product you were using was defective.
- The product directly led to your injury or damages.
- You were using the product as instructed, for its intended purpose.
Let’s look at each of these in more detail.
Loss and Injury
It’s not enough to be almost injured by a product or that your house was almost set on fire – if you want a product liability settlement, you’ll have to prove that you incurred specific damages. For example, if a malfunctioning hair dryer shorted out and you dropped it just in time, you won’t be able to pursue a claim, even if the product was defective. If, on the other hand, it shorted and burned your hand, you may be eligible for compensation for your medical bills.
There are two types of compensation in personal injury claims: specific, or economic damages are intended to compensate for medical bills, lost wages, or other tangible losses. General damages, on the other hand, compensate for intangible losses such as emotional anguish or the physical pain associated with your injuries. The courts will look at the gravity of both of these factors when making a ruling on your case.
One of the most important aspects of your product liability case is providing sufficient evidence that the product you were using was, in fact, defective. Proving product defect ranges from easy and self-evident to being very difficult. The sticking point is often proving that a product is “unreasonably dangerous.” For example, it might be hard to sue a knife company if you cut your finger off with one of their sharp blades – unless the knife guard malfunctioned during use.
You might have more luck using failure-to-warn as an argument, if you can provide evidence that the product was dangerous in a way that’s not obvious to a user.
The Defect Led to Injury
It’s not enough to prove that you were injured or incurred specific damages while you were using a product. Rather, you must prove that your injuries were the direct result of a product defect. This can be straightforward in some cases, but difficult in others. For example, if you crashed a car prone to rollover, you may argue that the car’s high center of gravity was responsible for your automobile accident – but the defense may point out that you were speeding, which also led to the crash.
You Were Using the Item as Instructed
In a general sense, you must be following the manufacturer’s instructions for use at the time of the injury. If, for example, you’re using a hair dryer to heat the water in your bathtub and injure yourself, you might not have a claim. If the same hairdryer shorts out while you’re using it as intended, it’s a different story.
On the other hand, you don’t have to use a product exactly as a manufacturer intended. The courts look at whether a manufacturer could have reasonably expected an ordinary consumer to use the product in the way you did to guide their decision.
Defective Household Products
Product defects can encompass a wide range of cases, from vehicles to medications. Household products are one of the most common types of cases we litigate. It’s impossible to name all of the household products that can be defective, but these come up often:
- Defective indoor and outdoor appliances: grills, air conditioners, hot tubs or spas, ceiling fans, radiators, ranges, refrigerators, ovens, and water heaters. In some cases, product defects may be covered by the manufacturer’s warranty. In others, such as a new home construction, your builder may be liable, since you hired them with the reasonable expectation that your home would be habitable. Improper installation often plays a role in these types of cases.
- Defective furniture: sofas, futons, lawn chairs, dining room chairs, folding chairs, office furniture, and hammocks.
- Defective kitchen products: crock pots, pressure cookers, blenders, toasters, waffle irons, and water kettles. Burns and scalding injuries most commonly result from defective kitchen products.
- Defective bathroom products: curling irons, straighteners, electric shavers, razors, hair dryers, and eyelash curlers.
- Defects in safety features: surge protectors, carbon monoxide detectors, and smoke alarms.
- Defective textiles: curtains, electric blankets, mattresses, and pillowcases. Examples include curtains coated with flammable materials or electric blankets with a malfunctioning auto-shutoff.
Though we’d like to believe that manufacturers extensively test and research every product they put onto the market, the truth is they are guilty of cutting corners to make more profit. Sometimes defects are accidental, but other times companies knowingly put defective products into the hands of consumers, leading to injury.
If we expect manufacturers to be diligent in the design, distribution, and retail of our products, we expect even more caution for our children. Children’s products are governed by a stricter set of federal regulations, set forth by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). The CPSC defines a children’s product as one designed for or used primarily by those under the age of 12. In determining if a product is intended for those under 12, the CPSC looks at the following factors:
- Whether the manufacturer provided a statement regarding use of the product, including a suggested age range.
- Whether the display, promotion, and advertising is appropriate for those 12 or under.
- Whether the product is commonly recognized by consumers as appropriate for 12 or younger.
- Whether the product falls under the Age Determination Guidelines set forth by the CPSC.
Like other defective product claims, product liability claims relating to children’s products may be filed against anyone involved in the manufacture, distribution, or retailing of the product. Common examples of claims against children’s products include:
- Toys, including those with lead. Since 1987, lead has been listed as a toxic material that can cause nervous system damage. Lead-based paint has been banned by the United States since 1978 because of its link to brain damage in children. When children’s toys contain more than 600 ppm of lead, they must be recalled.
- Pocket Bikes. These are small, gas-powered motorcycles that are marketed as children’s toys, but are capable of reaching high speeds and causing injuries comparable to their full-size counterparts.
- Baby equipment. Strollers, slings, cribs, and swings all must comply with federal regulations. Drop-side cribs have been banned since 2011 because of their link to strangulation and suffocation. Baby slings have also been on the CPSC radar, since there have been at least 14 suffocation deaths due to slings between 1994 and 2014. Baby slings have also been recalled in the past for defective hardware that can cause an infant to fall from the sling to the ground.
- Airsoft guns. These “toys” are best described as BB guns that send projectiles via air compressor. Since they bear an uncanny resemblance to real firearms, carrying one can result in potentially disastrous consequences. States have begun to enact regulations regarding the manufacture and ownership of Airsoft pistols. Eye loss and other forms of injury have been reported to the CDC as the result of these toys.
Parents should always be aware of child product recalls, which they can track via the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s website.
Food Poisoning and Product Defect
Food poisoning is another injury that falls under the scope of product liability law. Food products may be contaminated with any number of dangerous disease strains or toxins, including:
- E. coli
- Metals such as arsenic or mercury
People most at risk from foodborne illness include pregnant women, people with cancer, infants and toddlers, transplant recipients, the elderly, and those with immunosuppressive disorders such as HIV/AIDS. Complications from food-borne illness in these individuals can be life-threatening.
Who Is Liable for My Injuries?
Anyone involved in the distribution, manufacture, retailing, or advertising of a product may be guilty of negligence. One of the most important aspects of litigating your product defect case is identifying the responsible party. Your personal injury claim will likely involve one of the following defendants:
- The manufacturer. For defects involving the inherent design of a product (or a flaw affecting a batch of products), we often look to the manufacturer. As this is the party responsible for the careful design and assembly of your product, they are most likely responsible for your injuries.
- The distributor. If something happened to the product in transit that made it defective, it might be due to negligence of the middleman.
- A parts manufacturer. Your product might not have an inherent flaw in design, but one of the parts may be defective. An example might be a smartphone with a poorly designed lithium ion battery. In this case, you may be able to file two separate motions: one against the battery manufacturer, and one against the phone manufacturer.
- The retailer. Generally, you file a claim against a retailer if they negligently sold you a product, such as one that has been subject to recall. This applies when they knew, or should have known, that a product had been recalled.
Next Steps: Connecting With a Product Defect Attorney
Product defect cases have time limits, also known as statutes of limitations. In other words, you only have a limited amount of time in which you may file a claim. In the state of Montana, the statute of limitations for product defect is three years from the date of the incident that caused the injury. If you suspect you have a product defect case, it’s in your best interest to contact a personal injury attorney as soon as possible, even if you’re unsure.
At Heenan & Cook, PLLC, our legal process begins with a free initial consultation. You’ll meet with a representative of our firm, who will review the specifics of your case and decide if it has legal merit. If it does, we may offer our services on a contingency fee basis, which means you’ll only owe a lawyer’s fee if we win a settlement. This makes the process risk-free for our clients, and also allows us to be selective about the kinds of cases we take.
We began our Billings area firm 40 years ago, under the premise that no one should have to pay the price for another’s negligent actions. We’ve dedicated ourselves to helping Montana families, and are committed to seeing your case through. To schedule your case evaluation, contact us.