Negligence and defects in the design or manufacture of a product may result in serious injuries and, therefore, liability upon the maker of the product. This is what is generally referred to as products liability.
Examples of defective products causing serious injury are as varied as the types of products sold and used across our country. Defective vehicles and their parts are sometimes found to cause serious injuries and death on our roads. Defective aircraft design and manufacture are also capable of causing enormous and tragic loss.
Perhaps the most famous example of a defect in the design or manufacture of a motor vehicle is the Ford Pinto. In the nineteen seventies, the public learned too late what the product manufacturer had known all along – that the car was designed and manufactured in a way that made explosion of the gas tank likely in certain accidents. Aware of this problem, the manufacturer determined that they would rather not repair the defect or recall the vehicles. Instead, and without warning the general public, the maker of the car kept their profits and left the cars on the roadways, knowing the likelihood of harm the vehicle posed to its occupants and others. This created a wave of deaths and serious injuries that ultimately resulted in litigation that uncovered the ‘smoking gun memo’ establishing the manufacturer’s knowledge of the defect and decision to accept the human and financial losses rather than to protect the public.
The Pinto is, unfortunately, not the first or last example of a bad product foisted onto the public on the hope that they will shoulder the burden of the costs inevitably imposed on society when the product causes harm. Defective products continue to be discovered every day, resulting in recalls of everything from pharmaceuticals to lawn mowers, child safety seats to toys - just to name a few – all capable of causing life-changing injuries to unwary purchasers and users.
One cannot watch the evening news without being bombarded with commercials for new pharmaceutical products. With the development and influx of so many new medications in the marketplace, we have discovered that many of these drugs unfortunately have devastating side effects and, in some persons, can cause more harm than they do good. Infants and small children died from taking Propulsid (cisapride), a drug designed to treat reflux in adults, but marketed and given to children in order to increase drug-manufacturer’s corporate profits. Users of Rezulin, a drug designed to treat Type II diabetes caused many users to suffer liver failure. Similar problems have been linked to Serzone, an anti-depressant medication, and users of Baycol, a commonly-prescribed cholesterol medication have suffered from a muscle-wasting condition known as rhabdomyolysis which has resulted in kidney failure and even death. People have actually died from taking diet drugs such as Fen-Phen. Still others have died or suffered debilitating hemorrhagic strokes from ingesting Phenylpropanolamine (PPA), an ingredient previously found in many prescription and over-the-counter diet, cough and cold remedies. Certainly, no one would risk such serious injury or death simply to shed a few pounds or combat the symptoms of a common cold or cough. These represent but a handful of what we deem to be potentially dangerous drugs which have been pushed on consumers as multi-billion dollar companies seek to amass even greater fortunes at the expense -- and in some instances, the life -- of the individual.
Without the right to pursue products liability claims without limitation or restriction, defective products like the Ford Pinto might never have been discovered and ordinary citizens would be forced to bear the cost of these injuries while the manufacturers of the products profit.
An old law school hornbook, written by the venerable William L. Prosser, summarizes the early development of products liability law.
Finally, in 1916 in the famous case of MacPherson v. Buick Motor Company, the problem fell into the hands of Judge Cardozo, in connection with the liability of a defective wheel, bought from a dealer by an ultimate purchaser who was injured by its collapse. Cardozo’s opinion struck through the fog of the “general rule” and its various exceptions, and held the maker liable or negligence … its’ reasoning and its fundamental philosophy were were clearly that the manufacturer, by placing the car on the market, assumed a responsibility to the consumer. Third Edition, 1964.
This line of legal decisions has developed into the law of the land for good reason: that substantial harm should be anticipated if a product is placed into the marketplace in a defective condition. This law is consistent with the increasing complexity of our times and the mind-boggling number of unheard of products we are presented with as our societies grow and become more crowded. The law protects not only innocent purchasers of defective products but also those who can reasonably be expected to come near enough to be injured by them.
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