Product Liability History

When we purchase a product and it falls short of our expectations, it can be very disappointing, especially if a large sum of money were used to purchase the product. But what if the product caused a traumatic injury or death to a member of our family or anyone else it came in contact with? We would be devastated. What if we found out that the manufacturer or any one involved in the making or distribution of this product knew it to be un-safe but continued to make it available to the public? We would want anyone involved in getting this product in the hands of the consumer to be held responsible Products liability is an area of law whereby a consumer of a product may seek compensation for injury or property damage allegedly caused by that product. Responsible parties may include the manufacturer, contractor, assembler, distributer or store owner. There are five theories in which a products liability claim can be made. These are express warranties, implied warranties, negligence, fraud, and strict liability.An express warranty is a promise from the seller to the buyer that the product meets industry standards and is fit for use. Statements such as,” Satisfaction guaranteed” or “This tie is 100% silk ” are express warranties.

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An implied warranty arises from the sale itself without a promise from the seller. The product is of average quality and appropriate for the purpose it was intended. In the theory of negligence, one must prove that the seller did not exercise reasonable care in the manufacture or distribution of the product or give adequate instructions for safe use. Fraud is an intentional misrepresentation of the product by the seller. Strict liability holds the manufacturer responsible regardless of whether they were at fault.The product was defective when it left the manufacturer. Laws regulating product liability can be found in article 2 of the Uniform Commercial Code.The development of product liability laws can be traced back centuries. Product liability laws originate from English common law and tort law. A tort is a wrong committed against a person or their property. Common law refers to the standards that communities followed to govern themselves. Each court case became part of the common law, and consecutive court cases were decided using the decisions of prior court cases. All states use common law except for Louisiana, which uses France’s Napoleonic code. There are no federal laws governing product liability. The earliest common law view involved the English case of Winterbottom v. Wright in 1842 (Win 42). At this time the common law asserted the “privity limitation”. Privity refers to those in direct contact with each other. Mr.Winterbottom was employed by the Postmaster General to operate the mail coach. The mail coach fell apart and Mr. Winterbottom was injured. Mr. Wright had previously repaired the mail coach for the Postmaster General. Mr. Winterbottom sued Mr.Wright but lost. Mr. Winterbottom had no direct contact (privity) with Mr. Wright, only with the Postmaster General. Mr. Wright was however responsible for the failure of the mail coach. The court ruled against Mr. Winterbottom.10 years later there came the case of Thomas v. Winchester (Tho 52). Mr. Winchester, a druggist, mistakenly prepared a deadly medication called belladonna and sold it to Mr. Thomas as extract of dandelion. It had been mislabeled. Mr. Thomas was not harmed, but his wife was. The court set aside the privity rule and ruled in favor of Mr. Thomas. The court held that a dangerous substance, (ingesting mislabeled poison), was very different from a defective wheel as in the Winterbottom case.

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More than 70 years later came the case of MacPherson v. Buick (Mac 1916). This was the first case decision that rejected the privity rule. MacPherson alleged he was driving a Buick at 8 miles per hour when the wooden wheel broke and he was injured. Buick manufactured the automobile but another manufacturer supplied the tire. The court ruled in favor of Mr. MacPherson. The court ruled that there should be a standard for negligence cases and that whether the injury is from a defective part, as in the Winterbottom case or a deadly poison, in the Thomas case, they should be treated the same.These are only a few of the thousands of cases that have shaped modern day product liability law. The people, their family members, and others who came in contact with unsafe products paved the way for us to have safer laws.