Proving a Product Liability Claim

Here's what you need to prove to win a product liability claim.

Updated by , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated by Dan Ray, Attorney · University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law

If you've been injured or suffered other damages because of a dangerous product or prescription drug, you might have a viable product liability claim. In evaluating and preparing your case, it's helpful to know what the law says you must prove in order to win.

Let's have a look at the usual elements of a product liability claim.

Typical Elements of a Product Liability Claim

Although the particulars vary from state to state, products liability law usually requires that you prove all of the following things (called the "elements" of your claim) in order to win:

  • you were using the product as it was intended
  • the product was defective
  • you were injured or suffered losses, and
  • the defect caused your injury.

Let's examine each element in more detail.

You Were Using the Product as It Was Intended

Generally speaking, you must have been using the product in a way that the manufacturer intended consumers to use it. For example, if you use your new outdoor charcoal grill to cook steaks indoors and you catch your house on fire, you almost certainly don't have a product liability claim. If an ordinarily careful consumer wouldn't use the grill as you did, then the manufacturer isn't required to make the grill's design safe for that purpose.

This doesn't mean, however, that the way you were using the product when you were injured must conform exactly to the manufacturer's specifications. If a manufacturer could reasonably expect an ordinary consumer to use the product in the way you used it, you've likely met this requirement.

Suppose, for example, you bought "Robin's Remarkable Rose Clippers," touted by the manufacturer as "the ultimate tool for cutting roses." While using them to clip some chives in your garden, the blade snaps off and flies into your eyeball, blinding you in one eye. You probably have a valid product liability claim even though you weren't clipping roses when you were hurt.

The Product Was Defective

You must prove that the product was defective. The proof you'll need will depend on what type of product liability claim you're making:

  • a manufacturing defect claim
  • a design defect claim, or
  • a failure to warn claim.

(Learn about the different types of defective product claims.)

Manufacturing Defect Claim

Suppose you're electrocuted by an electric appliance. You learn that because of a flaw in the manufacturing process, your appliance was made with a defective power cord attachment. Proving this kind of manufacturing defect is generally straightforward.

You'll need an expert witness—likely an engineer with expertise in manufacturing processes—to testify to the manufacturing defect. You (or better yet, your product liability lawyer) shouldn't have any trouble finding such an expert.

Design Defect Claim

If you're claiming that the product was manufactured correctly but the design of the product was flawed, your proof may be harder to come by. Most likely, you'll have to show that the design problem made the product unreasonably dangerous. A newborn's blanket that catches fire and burns because it's made of highly flammable material would be a slam dunk.

The fact that a product is somehow defective or dangerous doesn't always mean the manufacturer or supplier is liable for your injuries. For example, if you drop your fancy new meat cleaver and chop off several toes, you probably won't have much success arguing that the design of the meat cleaver—specifically, its sharp blade—was unreasonably dangerous.

These are obvious examples, but determining whether a design is unreasonably dangerous can be far more subtle or complicated. Sometimes there's no reasonable or cost-effective way to design a much-needed product without it being somewhat dangerous.

Here's a good example. Automobile airbags can cause serious injury. But they save lots of lives and prevent many more injuries, all at relatively low cost. As a result, car manufacturers argue that airbags aren't unreasonably dangerous, particularly in view of the alternatives.

(Get tips on who might be liable for a defective product.)

Failure to Warn Claim

Product manufacturers have a duty to warn consumers of defects and dangers associated with foreseeable uses of their products. The less obvious a defect or danger is to the ordinary consumer, the greater the duty to warn. Warnings need to be communicated clearly and must effectively communicate the dangers involved.

For example, suppose you use a cleaning product that contains lye, a highly caustic substance but one that's quite effective at removing caked-on grease. The product container includes brightly-colored warnings telling you that the product "Causes Burns on Contact With Skin!"

You use the product as intended without feeling any harmful burning sensation. Several hours later, though, burn spots begin to appear on your arms. Without you realizing it, some of the product came in contact with your skin, causing you severe chemical burns. You later learn that chemical burns typically don't produce the same immediate burning, painful sensation as thermal burns.

Your product liability case might come down to the question of whether the product warnings were legally adequate. Most consumers don't know that chemical burns won't cause the same immediate physical sensations as thermal burns. So the case likely turns on whether telling consumers to watch out for "burns" effectively communicates the dangers associated with using the product.

(Learn more about theories of liability in a defective product case.)

You Were Injured or Suffered Losses

You'll need to show that you were hurt, or that you suffered some other loss, as a result of using the product. It's not enough that all sorts of horrible things almost happened to you. Without an actual injury or monetary loss ("damages" in legalese), you're missing a critical element of a product liability claim.

For example, say that because of a hairline crack in its base, your fancy new electric tea kettle explodes the first time you use it. You jump out of the way just in time, avoiding the burning hot steam and water, but you accidentally knock a hand-carved crystal vase—which happens to be your most valuable wedding gift—onto the floor. Remarkably, the vase survives the fall without a scratch.

Although the defective and dangerous tea kettle almost caused third-degree burns and the destruction of your most prized wedding gift, without actual injury or damage, you have no claim. (Learn more about damages in a product liability case.)

The Defect Caused Your Injury

Finally, it's not enough that you were injured while using the defective product. You must specifically prove that your injury was caused by the defect itself.

In some cases, as in the example of the cleaning product discussed above, linking the product defect to your injury is fairly simple. Other times, it may not be so easy.

For example, suppose you were injured in a car accident while driving a car that's prone to flipping over when turning corners. Let's also assume there's evidence that you were speeding at the time of the accident. The car manufacturer will undoubtedly argue that your reckless driving, not the car's design, was the cause of your accident.

Get Help With Your Product Liability Claim

There are some personal injury cases you might be able to handle on your own. If you're rear-ended at a stop light and have only minor injuries, for instance, you might be able to get a fair settlement without legal help. A product liability case isn't one you want to take on without expert assistance.

Product liability law is complicated and will almost certainly require complex, technical testimony from expert witnesses. In some cases, proving that your injury was caused by a product defect can be tricky. You need an experienced product liability lawyer who knows how to dig for the facts and build a solid case that proves all the necessary elements.

Here's how to find a personal injury lawyer near you who's right for your case.

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