Tort law in the American legal system has historically and traditionally had the purpose of protecting persons against unreasonable risks and conduct from individuals and corporations. Products liability law has developed over the last 100 years as the American legal system has attempted to balance this country’s industrial progress with society’s need to protect the consumer from dangerous and defective products. Despite this progress, manufacturers and corporations are currently attempting to undo this progress with legislative efforts in several states and at the federal level.
Historically, manufacturers and distributors of products were not liable for injuries caused by a defective product unless the person injured actually had privity of contract with the manufacturer or distributor. However, most courts recognized the hardships and inequities that this caused injured consumers and began to create exceptions to the privity rule. The New York Court of Appeals in 1916 in the now famous McPherson v. Buick Motor Company helped to start a legal trend towards our modern products liability law. In McPherson, the Court eliminated the need for privity and found that a manufacturer had a duty to manufacture a product with “due care” for any person that would ultimately use the product other than the original purchaser. Even Alabama adopted the reasoning of McPherson and abandoned the requirement of privity in negligence actions against manufacturers. This deviation from traditional tort law became known in Alabama as the “Manufacturer’s Liability Doctrine.”
As courts in this country continued to develop products liability law, the courts recognized the inherent difficulty in establishing that a manufacturer failed to exercise “due care” in the design or manufacture of a product. After all, most all evidence required to establish some fault in the design or manufacturing process was within the primary ownership of the manufacturer and difficult to obtain by an injured consumer. As a result, courts started to make exceptions to theories of liability under express and implied warranties. The advantage of warranty claims was that the focus was on whether the product itself was defective and an injured consumer was not required to prove fault or lack of “due care.” However, there was a direct privity requirement with the manufacturer or distributor in order the prevail on one of these warranty theories.
Recognizing the shortcomings of negligence and warranty theories, the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1960 in Henningsen v. Bloomfield Motors Inc. held that the privity requirement was no longer required for an implied warranty suit against an automobile dealer. The New Jersey Supreme Court found that society’s interest of protecting consumers necessitated the elimination of the privity requirement between the manufacturer or dealer.
Finally, the California Supreme Court in Greenman v. Yuba Power Products in 1963 determined that liability to a consumer for a defective product was not governed by the law of contract warranties or negligence but by the “law of strict liability in tort.” This Court was the first court in America to impose strict liability in tort on a manufacturer of a defective product. Shortly thereafter, in 1965 the America Law Institute adopted Section 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, which established a similar strict liability in tort for products liability as was imposed by the Court in Greenman v. Yuba Power Products. Alabama adopted a variation of this legal theory in 1976 known as the “Extended Manufacturers Liability Doctrine.”
Today, strict liability in tort for defective products is a well-recognized legal theory in American jurisprudence. In most instances, the focus of liability is not on whether the manufacturer acted with “due care” but instead on the condition of the product. In other words, was the product defective or unreasonably dangerous? If a product is deemed to be defective or unreasonably dangerous, it does not matter whether the manufacturer acted with “due care.” This has been a significant transition in American law. Because of strict products liability, many injured consumers have received just compensation when a defective product caused injuries or death.
The adoption of strict liability through the United States over the last 30 or 40 years has also created significant incentive for manufacturers and retailers to produce and sell safer products. Of course, with the advent of strict liability, manufacturers and retailers have been forced to expend more resources in providing proper engineering to ensure the design of safer products. In order to preserve profits at the cost of safety, companies have taken their fight from the courts to the legislatures.
Currently, a number of state legislatures, including Alabama, Tennessee and Florida, have had significant bills introduced that would assist manufactures and retailers in being immunized against claims related to selling defective products that cause injuries and death. In other words, a manufacturer and a retailer could reap significant profits and benefits from placing dangerous products in the stream of commerce but would not face any liability in the event such products injured or killed consumers. If these bills become law, 100 years of legal precedence will be thrown out for the sake of larger corporate profits and at the expense of safer consumer products.
The advent of strict liability law in American jurisprudence has had a significant impact on creating safer products and compensating those victims of unreasonably dangerous products that have been put into the stream of commerce. Consumers should be outraged that companies are actively trying to place their profits over consumer safety. Consumers should contact their state and federal legislators to make sure that pending products liability bills that would diminish consumer protection while increasing corporate profits are defeated. If manufacturers or retailers are going to earn a profit from designing and distributing unsafe products, they should also bear the burden of compensating those injured or killed by such dangerous products. If you want more information on this subject, contact Ben Baker, a Products Liability lawyer in our firm, at 800-898-2034 or by email at Ben.Baker@beasleyallen.com.
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