Products liability is one of the most complex areas of personal injury law. Consumers who have been injured by defective products usually benefit from working with a lawyer who can build a case on their behalf. In many situations, consumers join forces in class actions or multidistrict litigation when they have suffered similar types of harm from the same product, and they are bringing claims based on parallel legal theories. If they succeed in showing liability, they may be able to recover substantial amounts of damages. However, an injured consumer must follow certain procedural rules to preserve their rights.
Whom to Sue
Successor companies and foreign companies doing business in the U.S. may be held liable for a plaintiff’s injuries.
Defendants in products liability cases can span the entire chain of distribution from the manufacturer to the retailer that directly sold the defective item to the consumer. If a defect involves a component of the product, a consumer may be able to sue both the manufacturer of the component and the manufacturer of the overall product. Identifying the proper defendants and bringing each of them into the action is essential because some of them may have greater resources to pay damages than others. Joint and several liability often applies in products liability cases, which means that a plaintiff can recover the full amount of their damages from any defendant that is found liable, even if that defendant did not bear full responsibility for the injuries.
When to Sue
A specific statute of limitations governs products liability claims. A consumer typically must file within this deadline to preserve their right to damages. The statute of limitations varies by state but usually expires within two to four years. It may be different from the statute of limitations in ordinary personal injury cases. Under the discovery rule, the statute of limitations may not start running until the victim discovered or reasonably should have discovered their injury. This can account for situations in which a condition developed over time or in which the harm was not immediately visible. However, the discovery rule does not apply in every state, and it does not affect the application of the statute of repose. This is an additional procedural rule that sets a firm endpoint beyond which a plaintiff cannot bring a lawsuit. It is based on the date when a product was sold.
Another distinctive feature in products liability cases involves the underlying legal theory. In many cases, a plaintiff does not need to prove negligence, as they would in an ordinary personal injury case. Instead, they could use a theory of strict liability. This means that liability arises if the product had a defect, and the defect caused the plaintiff’s injuries and damages. In other words, it does not matter whether the defendant’s carelessness or misconduct caused the defect. Strict liability thus is often easier to prove than negligence. (Some states still require a plaintiff to prove negligence, though.) A consumer also generally needs to show that they were using the product in an intended or reasonably foreseeable way.
Types of Defects
If you prevail in a products liability case, you may be able to recover compensatory damages from any defendant that was found liable. Compensatory damages are meant to address the injuries and costs that the plaintiff incurred, such as their medical bills and lost income. They also can cover the pain and suffering of the victim, which is more difficult to quantify. Serious, permanent, or disfiguring injuries are more likely to lead to substantial pain and suffering awards. If a manufacturer acted in a reckless, willful, or otherwise egregious way, a victim may be able to recover punitive damages as well. These go beyond compensatory damages to punish the manufacturer for conduct that society wants to discourage. A spouse also may be able to recover loss of consortium damages if their relationship suffered harm because of the victim’s injuries.