WHAT MAKES A PRODUCT DEFECTIVE?
Clients often sit down with me at an initial meeting, describe their accident and a feature or component of a “product” and ask “do I have a case?” The answer to that question most often turns on whether the product or its component can be characterized as “defective”. A recent product recall by a large manufacturer provides an excellent learning tool on this topic.
In November, 2009, Maclaren, USA, Inc. issued a “voluntary” recall of several models of “umbrella” style baby strollers. As designed, manufactured and sold, the strollers had exposed “shear points” at the hinges. This design defect caused twelve reported cases in which infants’ fingertips were amputated in the shear point. According to news reports, these strollers were manufactured in China and distributed by Maclaren USA, Inc.
Under Pennsylvania and New Jersey law, product defects fall into three general categories:
(1) Design defects;
(2) Manufacturing defects/aka malfunctions; and
(3) Failure to warn.
The Maclaren baby stroller defect is a classic example of a design defect. A product is defective when it contains any component or feature which makes it unsafe for its intended use or anticipated misuse, or if it is lacking any feature necessary to make it safe. The exposed shear point obviously is a feature which makes the stroller unsafe. This is a classic “design defect” case.
Products are defective due to a “manufacturing defect” or “malfunction” when there is a flaw in the manufacture or construction of the particular product involved in the accident. A hypothetical example is a lightweight aluminum product such as a bicycle handlebar. Some of these products are designed to be as light as possible. The design involves portions of the handlebars which have very thin aluminum walls. These are generally safe if the manufacturing process is perfect. However, if an air bubble, grain of sand or other impurity gets into the aluminum at a stress point, this can cause a sudden, catastrophic failure of the bar. While the design is arguably sound, the presence of the flaw in the manufacturing process of the particular item makes that product defective.
Another way in which a product can be deemed defective is the failure to warn of potential dangers in the use of a product or the failure to provide the proper instructions as to the product’s safe use. An example here would be a manufacturing machine that has moving parts that can snag on loose clothing such as shirtsleeves or frayed work gloves. While such a product would likely be deemed defective in design, the failure to warn the users to avoid loose clothing and frayed gloves could also be considered a defect.
The examples of product defects are as varied as products themselves. Placing an emergency stop switch more than an arm’s length from an in-running pinch point on an industrial machine is a design defect. Designing a child’s toy with small pieces that can break off and choke a child is a design defect. Designing a farm tractor without an operator presence control that would shut the engine down if the operator left the operating station of the tractor is a design defect.
A wooden stepstool which is perfectly proper in design is defective if insufficient glue is used to assemble it. Metal scaffolding materials are defective if the welds are improper, causing the framing to fail under stress.
With the increasingly global nature of our economy, more and more products and component parts are being manufactured in foreign countries where labor costs are very low. Quality control systems in these countries and these factories are often below United States standards. With this, the incidence of manufacturing defects and malfunctions increases.
Also, big box discount stores often sell low price products that are designed and manufactured overseas. These products are often packaged with the intention that they will be sold in many countries. Sometimes, the warnings and instructions are formatted in such a way to have application in many countries which speak many languages. This can result in instructions and warnings that are very difficult to understand. This can constitute a warnings defect.
Bottom line, it is difficult to provide a universal description of a product defect. Each case, and each product, ordinarily must be evaluated on its own terms. An experienced attorney familiar with products liability law will often be able to give you a preliminary evaluation of whether a product is or is not “defective”. However, the opinion of a qualified expert witness or consultant is sometimes required before even a preliminary opinion or evaluation of a given case can be given.