Product Liability Lawsuits

The rising incidents of defective products and their recalls highlight critical concerns in product liability, underscoring the legal implications for consumer safety and manufacturer accountability.

Lawsuit background and development

Settlements and verdicts

How to file a lawsuit

Introduction to Product Liability

Product liability refers to the legal obligation of sellers and manufacturers to ensure that their products are safe for consumers. It is the area of law that holds manufacturers, distributors, suppliers, retailers, and others who make products available to the public responsible for the injuries those products cause.

When a product defect causes harm, the injured party can potentially sue for damages. Product liability claims can be based on theories of negligence, strict liability, or breach of warranty.

Strict Liability

Strict liability is a legal doctrine that holds parties responsible for their actions or products without the need for the injured party to prove negligence or fault.

In the context of product liability, strict liability means that a manufacturer, distributor, or seller can be held liable if a product they put into the market is found to be defective and causes harm, regardless of whether they knew about the defect or acted negligently.

Under strict liability, the focus is not on the behavior of the manufacturer but on the product itself. If the product is unsafe when used as intended, or in a reasonably foreseeable manner, the responsible parties can be held liable for any resulting damages.

This approach is intended to incentivize manufacturers and other entities in the supply chain to rigorously ensure the safety of their products before they reach the consumer.

To establish a strict liability claim, the plaintiff typically needs to demonstrate three key elements:

  • The Product Was Defective: The product had a manufacturing or design defect or was defective due to inadequate instructions or warnings at the time it left the defendant's control.
  • The Defect Caused Injury: The defect directly caused the plaintiff's injury while the product was being used in the way it was intended to be used or in a way that could be reasonably expected.
  • The Product Was Not Substantially Changed: The product that caused the injury was in substantially the same condition as when it left the manufacturer's possession.

This doctrine simplifies the legal process for injured consumers by removing the burden of proving a manufacturer's negligence, making it easier to receive compensation for injuries caused by defective products.


Negligence, in the context of product liability, refers to the failure of a manufacturer, distributor, or seller to exercise reasonable care in the design, manufacture, or sale of a product, which results in harm to a consumer.

Unlike strict liability, where the focus is on the product itself, negligence concerns the conduct of the manufacturer or other entities involved in the product's creation and distribution. This involves an examination of whether these parties failed to meet the standard of care expected in their activities that could foreseeably result in harm.

To establish a negligence claim in product liability, the injured party must demonstrate several key elements:

  • Duty of Care: The manufacturer or distributor had a legal obligation to the consumer to produce a safe product. This includes designing, manufacturing, inspecting, and labeling the product properly.
  • Breach of Duty: The manufacturer or distributor failed to fulfill their duty of care. This could be due to inadequate testing, poor manufacturing processes, failure to warn about potential risks, or any action that falls below the industry's standard of care.
  • Causation: The breach of duty must be the direct cause of the consumer’s injury. This means that the injury would not have occurred if it weren't for the manufacturer's negligence.
  • Damages: The plaintiff must have suffered actual harm as a result of the breach. This can include physical injury, emotional distress, or financial loss.

That said, there are certain circumstances where specific legal doctrines such as "negligence per se" and "res ipsa loquitur" may simplify the plaintiff's task of proving negligence:

Negligence Per Se

Negligence per se is a legal doctrine that applies when a defendant violates a law or regulation that is specifically designed to protect the public from a certain type of harm, which then occurs as a result of that violation.

In the context of product liability, if a manufacturer fails to adhere to specific safety regulations and a product causes injury as a result, the law automatically presumes the manufacturer was negligent.

For example, if a child's toy is manufactured with parts smaller than the size standards mandated by safety regulations and causes a choking hazard, the manufacturer could be found negligent per se for not following those regulations.

This simplifies the plaintiff's task of proving negligence because they do not need to establish that a reasonable standard of care was violated; the violation of the statute itself constitutes proof of negligence.

Res Ipsa Loquitur

The Latin term "res ipsa loquitur" means "the thing speaks for itself." This doctrine is applied in cases where the exact act of negligence is not known, but the accident that occurred is of a type that typically would not happen without negligence.

In product liability, res ipsa loquitur allows a court to infer negligence if the product that caused harm was under the exclusive control of the defendant, and the incident that caused harm was such that it would not ordinarily occur in the absence of negligence.

For instance, if a new kitchen appliance explodes while being used according to the manufacturer’s instructions, and such explosions are not a common occurrence, res ipsa loquitur could be invoked to suggest that the explosion likely resulted from a defect or negligence in manufacturing or design that may not be directly observable.

Including these concepts helps illustrate the breadth of legal strategies available to plaintiffs in product liability cases, enabling a more comprehensive understanding of how parties might be held accountable for their failure to ensure product safety.

Breach of Warranty

Breach of warranty in product liability refers to the failure of a product to meet the terms of any promise or guarantee explicitly made by the manufacturer or seller regarding the quality, safety, or functionality of the product. Warranties can be either express or implied, covering various aspects of the product's condition and suitability for its intended use.

Express Warranty

An express warranty is a specific, clearly stated promise made by the seller or manufacturer about the nature and quality of the product. Express warranties can be made through marketing materials, product packaging, or any formal warranty document.

For example, an express warranty might state, that a kitchen blender will operate without defect for at least three years. If the blender fails within that time frame under normal use conditions, the manufacturer or seller could be liable for breach of this warranty.

Implied Warranty

There are generally two types of implied warranties that automatically apply in most commercial transactions:

  • Implied Warranty of Merchantability: Implies that the product will reasonably conform to an ordinary buyer’s expectations, meaning it is fit for the general purpose for which it is sold. For instance, a refrigerator is expected to keep perishable goods cold.
  • Implied Warranty of Fitness for a Particular Purpose: Applies when a seller knows that a buyer needs a product for a specific purpose and the buyer relies on the seller’s expertise to select a suitable product. If the product fails to meet the stated purpose, this can constitute a breach of warranty.

In a breach of warranty case, the plaintiff must prove that a warranty covering the product was in place, the product did not meet the terms of the warranty, and this failure resulted in some form of harm or loss to the consumer, which typically includes the cost of repairs, replacement, or other consequential damages.

Importantly, unlike negligence or strict liability claims, proving a breach of warranty does not necessarily require showing that the product was defective. Instead, it must be shown that the product failed to meet the stated or implied standards set forth by the warranty.

Types of Product Liability

The basis of product liability claims can vary, but they generally involve issues related to manufacturing defects, design defects, or failure to provide adequate warnings or instructions concerning the proper use of the product.

Each type of product liability claim addresses different aspects of product safety and manufacturer responsibility, and they form the foundation for legal action when products fail and cause harm.

Manufacturing Defects

Manufacturing defects occur when a product departs from its intended design due to some error in the manufacturing process, even though the product was correctly designed. This type of defect is typically unintended and usually affects a single unit or a batch of products, rather than an entire line.

For example, a car airbag that fails to deploy because of a fault in the assembly line is considered to have a manufacturing defect.

The key to a claim based on a manufacturing defect is proving that the product that caused injury was different from the others that were manufactured correctly and that this deviation from the design standards caused the harm.

Design Defects

Design defects are inherent in the product’s design itself, meaning there is something fundamentally unsafe about the product. Claims based on design defects argue that all units of a product are faulty and dangerous, regardless of whether they were made according to the product specifications.

To establish a design defect, it must be shown that the product’s design is inherently unsafe and that there was a feasible, safer alternative that the manufacturer could have used instead.

An example of this might be a type of sunglasses that fail to protect the eyes from ultraviolet rays, posing a risk of eye damage to users.

Failure to Warn

Also known as "marketing defects," these claims involve products that carry inherent non-obvious dangers that could be mitigated through adequate warnings or instructions. This category addresses the failure of manufacturers to inform users about the dangers of using a product or to instruct them on the safe use of the product.

For instance, if a pharmaceutical company does not provide adequate warnings about the side effects of a medication, or if a power tool comes without instructions for safe operation, those products could be subject to failure-to-warn claims.

Understanding these distinctions is crucial for determining the appropriate legal approach in cases involving product-related injuries.

Historical Context and Major Lawsuits

In the late 1800s, product liability law in the US was far more restrictive than it is today, largely due to the privity of contract requirements. This legal principle meant that only direct buyers, who purchased products straight from the manufacturers, could initiate lawsuits for defects under the implied warranties of merchantability.

Since manufacturers typically sold their products through retailers, most consumers had no direct contractual relationship with the manufacturers and no legal ground to sue them when a product turned out to be defective.

It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that courts began to critically reassess and gradually dismantle the restrictive privity of contract requirements, recognizing the need to better protect consumers.

The adoption of strict liability, first recognized by California in 1963, was the main driver behind the transformation of product liability law from a fault-based system to one that emphasizes consumer protection. This evolution was codified with the American Law Institute's Restatement (Second) of Torts in 1965, and further refined in 1998 with the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability.

Nowadays, almost every state in the US follows some form of strict liability for defective products. This means an injured person can sue the manufacturer without proving negligence, as long as the product was defective and caused harm.

Largest Product Liability Lawsuits in the United States

The dangers of defective products have been highlighted by several high-profile product liability lawsuits, including the following noteworthy cases.

Phillip Morris Tobacco

For decades, tobacco companies like Phillip Morris have faced lawsuits due to the health risks of smoking. However, one specific case that gained significant attention involved Betty Bullock, a 64-year-old woman with inoperable lung cancer, who sued the company for negligence, strict liability, and fraud.

In October 2002, a Los Angeles jury awarded $28 billion in punitive damages against Phillip Morris, marking the largest tobacco damages award ever issued in an individual case. The award was later reduced by 1,000 times to $28 million.

Unfortunately, Betty passed away shortly after, in February 2003. (ThomsonReuters)

Monsanto Weed Killer

Thousands of lawsuits have been filed against Monsanto (now owned by Bayer), alleging their Roundup herbicide caused non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system.

Plaintiffs argued the company knew or should have known about the risks but failed to warn consumers.

In 2020, Bayer agreed to a $10.9 billion settlement to resolve a large portion of the Roundup lawsuits. (NYTimes)

Johnson & Johnson’s Talcum Powder Cases

Johnson & Johnson faced multiple lawsuits claiming that their talcum powder products caused ovarian cancer. Plaintiffs had argued the company knew or should have known about these risks but failed to warn consumers.

As of July 2022, J&J had nearly 38,000 cases related to asbestos in talc products and had paid approximately $4 billion in settlements, verdicts, and defense costs. (Forbes)

In April 2023, the company proposed to pay almost $9 billion to resolve tens of thousands of lawsuits. (BBC)

General Motors Ignition Switch Litigation

Between 2002 and 2014, a faulty ignition switch in certain General Motors cars caused a wave of lawsuits. The faulty switch could slip out of position, shut off the engine, and disable airbags while driving. The NHTSA linked this defect to at least 124 deaths. (NHTSA)

Because of the defect, GM has recalled more than 2.6 million vehicles, over the span of 10 years, between 2004 and 2014, and paid around $900 million in penalties. (CarAndDriver, NYTimes)

McDonalds Hot Coffee

One of the most popular product liability lawsuits involves 79-year-old Stella Liebeck, who sued McDonalds for serving her coffee that was too hot.

Namely, the lady accidentally spilled the coffee on her lap and caused third-degree burns over 16% of her body. She argued that the coffee was served way too hot, or at least hotter than how it is served at other establishments. (TortMuseum)

The case went to trial, and the jury awarded Liebeck $640,000 in punitive damages and $200,000 in compensatory damages. However, the judge later reduced the punitive damages to $160,000. (Citizen)

Filing a Product Liability Claim

When it comes to seeking justice for injuries caused by defective products, consumers have several legal avenues to consider. The choice between filing an individual claim or joining a mass tort, such as multidistrict litigation (MDL) or a class action lawsuit, depends on the specifics of the case and the circumstances of the injury.

  • Individual Claims: Filed by a single plaintiff and focused solely on the personal harm caused by a defective product. They are tailored to the specific details of the plaintiff’s case, including their unique injuries and the circumstances under which these injuries occurred. This option is often chosen when the plaintiff's situation does not closely match those of other injured parties or when the damages sought are unique to their personal experience.
  • Multidistrict Litigation (MDL): Legal procedures designed to speed up the process of handling complex cases, such as those involving many plaintiffs against common defendants where the underlying facts are similar but not identical. They consolidate pretrial proceedings to achieve efficiency and consistency in handling. Each plaintiff in an MDL retains their individual lawsuit and may receive a different amount of compensation based on their specific damages.
  • Class Action Lawsuits: A group of plaintiffs with similar claims is represented collectively by a member of the group. This method is efficient for handling large numbers of claims that stem from the same issue and involve common facts. All members of the class are bound by the result of the case, and typically, the settlement is divided among all class members after deducting legal fees and costs.

Both MDLs and class actions provide the advantage of pooling resources, which can be particularly beneficial against large corporations with significant legal defenses. They also help promote consistency in the judgments of related cases and can lead to substantial settlements or judgments that might not be possible for individuals filing on their own.

How to File a Product Liability Lawsuit

If you are looking to file a product liability lawsuit, there are several critical steps you need to take to ensure you are building a strong and compelling case:

  • Consult an Attorney: Secure the expertise of a lawyer specializing in product liability to assess the viability of your case and navigate the legal complexities.
  • Document the Injury and Product: Collect all pertinent evidence, such as medical records, photos of the product and injury, purchase receipts, and any relevant communications with the manufacturer.
  • Identify the Type of Product Liability Claim: Determine whether your claim involves a manufacturing defect, design defect, or a failure to warn. Your lawyer will identify the appropriate category based on your specific situation.
  • Establish Proof: Demonstrate that the product was defective, this defect caused your injury, and you incurred losses as a result. This often requires expert testimony and product testing.
  • File the Complaint: Your lawyer will draft and file a legal complaint against the responsible parties, which could include the manufacturer, distributor, or retailer. This document will outline your allegations and the damages you seek.

After the complaint has been filed, the lawsuit will enter the discovery phase where you, as the plaintiff and the defendant will exchange information to understand the facts. You may enter negotiations to try and reach a settlement, and if they are unsuccessful, the case will go to trial.

Both sides will present their evidence and arguments, and after the trial concludes, the judge or jury will deliver a verdict. If the verdict is in your favor, the court will determine the amount of compensation you are entitled to receive for your injuries and losses.

If the verdict is not in your favor, you have the option to appeal the decision.

Liable Parties in Product Liability Cases

In product liability cases, several parties along the product's supply chain can potentially be held liable for damages caused by defects. Liability isn't limited to the manufacturer; it can extend to anyone involved in the design, production, or distribution of the product.

Here’s a breakdown of who can be found liable and under which circumstances:

  • Manufacturers: Including the manufacturer of the final product or the manufacturer of component parts. They can be held liable if the product is found to have a manufacturing defect or a design defect.
  • Designers: In cases where the product design is inherently dangerous or defective, the designer can be held liable, even if the manufacturing and marketing were executed flawlessly.
  • Distributors and Retailers: Even though they did not manufacture the product, the law can hold them responsible if they sell a product that is defective or unsafe. The rationale is that everyone in the supply chain has a responsibility to ensure the product's safety.
  • Wholesalers and Suppliers: Wholesalers and suppliers can be liable if they distribute a defective product or if they supply defective parts that contribute to a product’s defectiveness.
  • Marketing Claims: Parties responsible for marketing the product, including the advertising agency, can be held liable if their promotional materials or instructions do not adequately instruct or warn consumers about the product's proper use or potential risks.

Prevention and Business Perspective

Product liability can be a serious and potentially devastating issue for businesses. It not only involves significant financial costs due to litigation, settlements, and compensation payouts but also can severely damage a company’s reputation, leading to a loss of consumer trust and decreased market share.

The impact of a product liability case can reverberate throughout a business, affecting everything from stock prices to investor confidence, and can even jeopardize the company’s future viability.

For these reasons, it's critical for businesses to adopt rigorous safety standards, thorough testing procedures, and effective quality control measures to minimize the risk of product defects. Proactive prevention strategies are essential in safeguarding against the substantial risks associated with product liability.

How to Protect Your Business From Product Liability Lawsuits

Protecting your business from product liability lawsuits involves proactive strategies and diligent practices that minimize risks and ensure compliance with industry standards. Here are several key steps and recommendations to help safeguard your business:

  • Implement Comprehensive Quality Control: Establish rigorous quality control systems to detect and eliminate defects before products reach the market. Regular audits and checks can help maintain high standards.
  • Design Safety into Products: Involve safety experts during the product design phase to identify and mitigate potential hazards, ensuring products are as safe as possible from the outset.
  • Stay Updated on Regulations: Stay informed of all relevant regulations and standards that pertain to your products. Compliance not only reduces liability risks but also builds consumer confidence.
  • Provide Clear Instructions and Warnings: Clearly communicate any potential risks associated with your products through effective labeling and warnings. Ensure that these are easily understandable and visible.
  • Obtain Adequate Insurance: Protect your business financially by securing product liability insurance, which can cover legal fees, settlements, and compensation awarded.
  • Engage in Active Product Monitoring: Continuously monitor your products after release, addressing any safety issues identified through consumer feedback or complaints promptly.


To prove a product caused your injury, you need to demonstrate that the product was defective, that this defect was directly responsible for your injury, and that you were using the product as intended at the time of the injury.

Yes, it is highly recommended that you hire a lawyer when filing a product liability claim. A lawyer can help you navigate complex legal issues, gather necessary evidence, and advocate effectively on your behalf to maximize the chances of a favorable outcome.

Consumers can stay informed about product recalls and safety notices by regularly visiting the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) website, subscribing to their recall alerts, and following trusted news sources such as Consumer Reports and local news channels that frequently cover consumer safety issues.

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