You've purchased a product that you're pretty sure is defective, and you're wondering about your legal options. No matter how dangerous the defect or problem may appear to be, the short answer is that you probably can't bring a "product liability" claim unless you experienced some kind of injury or loss. Let’s take a look at products liability law and the element of damages to understand the reasoning behind this.
Product Liability Basics
When a consumer encounters a defective product, that could give rise to a "product liability" or "breach of warranty" lawsuit. These types of cases can be brought against the manufacturer or seller of the product. One important distinction inherent in these types of lawsuits is that they are not based on the usual negligence standard that determines liability in most personal injury cases; instead, they are governed by a concept known as "strict liability."
Although different states word their strict liability laws differently, in general a manufacturer or a seller of a product is liable if:
- the product contains a defect that is unreasonably dangerous, and
- the defect causes injury to a reasonably foreseeable user of the product.
With strict product liability, there's no consideration as to whether or not the manufacturer or seller was somehow careless or negligent, and there's no "reasonable person" standard against which the defendant's conduct will be measured. The main issue in a product liability case is whether the product was unreasonably dangerous. Learn more about strict liability in injury cases.
The "Damages" Element
Now let’s look at the law of damages. In order for a plaintiff to recover damages in any type of personal injury case, including a products liability lawsuit, the plaintiff has to have suffered some type of legally compensable injury. Indeed, that requirement appears in the standard definition of products liability law referenced above -- a manufacturer or seller is liable if the product contains a defect that is unreasonably dangerous and it causes injury to a reasonably foreseeable user of the product.
But a legally compensable injury is not necessarily a physical injury; it could be a financial injury as well. For example, let’s say you bought a defective electrical outlet. You brought it home and installed it, and, when you plugged something (a TV, let’s say) into it, the outlet caught fire, burned a small area of the wall, and destroyed the TV. You weren’t harmed, and nothing else in the house was damaged.
Assuming that the outlet was indeed defective, you still have a products liability claim. The manufacturer produced and sold a defective product that was unreasonably dangerous, and that caused (financial) damage to a reasonably foreseeable user of the outlet. If the TV cost $300, the outlet cost $2, and it cost you $150 to repair the damage to the wall, you have been damaged to the tune of $452. That's a perfectly legitimate products liability claim.
But keep in mind that, where physical injuries are involved, the value of a products liability claim rises at a steep climb. That's because physical injuries open the door to non-economic damages such as pain and suffering. If your damages are limited to financial losses, you can't recover compensation for pain and suffering. Learn more about economic versus non-economic damages in a personal injury case.
This is an important distinction, because products liability cases can be very expensive to prosecute. The plaintiff will almost always need an expert witness (and maybe two experts) to establish the key elements of the claim. So, although you need to have suffered some type of injury, however small, to prosecute a products liability case, in reality you need to have suffered a relatively significant injury before it becomes worthwhile for you (or a lawyer) to expend the time and resources necessary to pursue the case.