Product Liability Law – California’s Stringent Strict Product Liability Laws And Theories Of Recovery May Affect An North Carolina Designer, Manufacturer, Or Distributor
So your business manufacturers a product, good, or gear in North Carolina, maybe its bike components, furniture, or something else you plan to sell nationwide. Or, you are involved in the sale and nationwide distribution of a product from a North Carolina manufacturer, as a retailer or distributor. Guess what, if that product somehow causes a personal injury or harm to a person or personal property in California, your business can potentially be sued in California under its stringent Strict Products Liability laws. While other states, including North Carolina, may only have delineated strict product liability laws and recovery systems for “unreasonable dangerous” products or industries, California applies its strict product liability laws to all products put into the stream of commerce and sold to the public, including recreational gear and components, green technologies, business and industrial machinery, consumer goods and food products, chemicals, medical devices and equipment, and weapons and explosives. And the liability for injuries emanating from such products extends to all parties designing, manufacturing, producing, distributing and selling those products in the “stream of commerce.” Additionally, there is potentially no apportionment of fault between those within the chain of distribution of a single product. Meaning one party in the stream could be liable for damages without being proved the party at fault.
In California a plaintiff seeking to recover damages for injuries caused by a defective product generally may assert claims under three theories: (a) strict products liability, (b) negligence and (c) breach of warranty. All three theories may be pled in the alternative. However, here we are simply focusing on the California theories of strict product liability. There are three avenues of pleading and recovery under California’s strict product liability laws – (1) design defect, (2) manufacturing defect, and/or (3) inadequate warning. Additionally, the Plaintiff doesn’t necessarily have to be the direct purchaser of the subject product or good either, but can be an injured foreseeable user or innocent bystander as well. Finally, strict products liability actions may encompass both latent and patent defects.
The basic elements of a California strict product liability claim are: the product was used in an intended or reasonably foreseeable manner, which includes reasonably foreseeable misuse, abuse, changes, alterations, etc.; the product was in defective condition when it left defendant’s possession; and the defective product was the legal cause of the plaintiff’s injuries or damages. The essential factual elements of a strict liability claim are met when: Plaintiff proves that he was harmed by a product distributed/manufactured/sold by defendant that: (1) contained a manufacturing defect; or (2) was defectively designed; or (3) did not include sufficient instructions or warning of potential safety hazards and those hazards caused Plaintiff’s damages.
The definitions and elements for each of the three potential California strict product liability theories are important. For example, a product contains a manufacturing defect if the product differs from the manufacturer’s design or specifications, or from other typical units of the same product line. Therefore, just because a product injured someone, doesn’t mean there is actual strict product liability, there are still additional requirements and elements a plaintiff must prove, which set out if there is an actual “defect”. Generally defendant businesses also have the opportunity to prove that the plaintiff did not use or misused the product in some unforeseeable way. Once plaintiff proves its initial burden as to the products questionable safety, the defendant(s) will have the opportunity to prove its burden in this regard.
A product is defectively designed when it is built to its intended specifications, but the design itself is inherently defective, which renders the product unsafe and causes some harm or injury. To prove that a product has a design defect there are two tests, the Consumer Expectation Test and Risk-Benefit Test, either of which may be used. The Consumer Expectation Test requires that a plaintiff prove that the design was defective because the product did not perform as safely as an ordinary consumer would have expected it to when used, or misused, in an intended or reasonably foreseeable way, and that resulted in plaintiff’s injury. The Risk-Benefit Test requires the plaintiff to prove that the design of a product was a substantial factor in causing the harm/injury and then the defendant has the opportunity to prove that the intended benefits of the designed product outweigh its risks. To make this decision the court will consider a number of factors, including, but not limited to: the likelihood the complained of harm would occur, the feasibility of an alternative safer design, the cost of an alternative safer design, and the disadvantages of that alternative design.
The final potential avenue for recovery under California strict products liability laws is the inadequate or failure to warn doctrine. Under this theory, the plaintiff would have to prove that the product had potential risks or side effects that were known or knowable in light of general industry knowledge, at the time of manufacture, distribution, and/or sale; that ordinary consumers would not have recognized those potential risks or side effects; that the defendant failed to adequately warn or instruct of those potential risks; and that the failure to properly warn was a substantial factor in causing the harm or injury.
It is important to note two additional things with respect to California’s strict product liability laws. First, California strict liability is not limitless as the Courts have held that manufacturers are liable under strict liability and negligence only for defects in their products, as distinguished from other products that could potentially be used with their products. This component parts doctrine provides that the manufacturer of a component part is not liable for injuries caused by the finished product into which the component has been incorporated, unless the component itself was defective and substantially contributed to or caused the harm. Second, there are a number of exceptions and/or additional industry specific rules and elements in California for certain industries, such as the pharmaceutical and medical community or large machinery and construction industry. Therefore, it may be important for you to consult with an attorney prior to putting a product into the national stream of commerce or if you have received a potential claim or complaint from an injured party in California.
Forrest is licensed in California and North Carolina and has extensive history representing and defending design and manufacturers, distributors, and retailers against California’s strict product liability laws, including subrogation actions. He is familiar with California specific laws, defenses, and trends. He has worked with a number material design and manufacturers, distributers, and suppliers within many industries, including construction and construction materials, retailers, furniture, vehicle, motorcycle, trucking and carriers, and recreational components and gear developers and distributers. He is able to apprise industries of the potential liability they may face and explain how the rules and laws work, provide liability analysis and potentially decrease down the road liability and respective litigation costs through documentation and entity structure, and work with businesses throughout any sort of claim or litigation to provide them a comprehensive defense, whether it be a North Carolina matter or a California one. Through his practice experience in California, Forrest also has the necessary contacts there to assist in mounting a product liability defense on the West Coast, should the need arise.