Product liability law protects people who are harmed by dangerous or defective products. Generally, manufacturers have a responsibility not to harm the public with their products. However, in Massachusetts product liability law is more difficult for plaintiffs than it is in other states and manufacturers have effective defenses available to them in Massachusetts that would not be as effective elsewhere. This is partly because we define “strict liability” differently.
What is Strict Liability?
“Strict liability” means that courts will hold manufacturers responsible for any harm caused by their products, whether or not the manufacturer was negligent or intended to harm anyone. This is an exception to the general rule. Most times, a court will not issue you any personal injury award unless you have proven that the liable person was negligent in his or her duty towards you, such as when someone violates traffic laws or when a doctor fails to exercise the standard duty of care. In other words, at the very least, you have to prove that the other person behaved in some unreasonable or irresponsible way before you can win your case.
On the other hand, under strict liability you do not have to prove that the manufacturer was irresponsible or unreasonable, only that it created the product and that the product harmed you because it was defective. There are three ways a product can be considered defective:
- It was poorly designed
- It was poorly built
- The manufacturer failed to warn the public about inherent dangers in the product that could be avoided if used properly.
Strict liability comes into play when manufacturers are being as responsible as we can reasonably expect, yet they inevitably produce drugs or cars or other products that hurt people, and no one can better anticipate, prevent, or pay for those harms than the manufacturers themselves.
In Massachusetts law, instead of a strict liability provision, we have the “implied warranty of merchantability,” which essentially does the same work, except that it is subject to certain defenses, one of which is known as the “unreasonable use” defense. If the injured person was using the product in an unreasonable way, then he or she will not be able to recover compensation from the manufacturer for injuries. Whether or not your use is unreasonable is up to the jury and results can vary widely.
In one case, a supervisor at a quarry heard the exposed gears of an industrial machine grinding loudly. The machine was supposed to have a guard over its gears, but it was sold to his company without the guard. The supervisor felt he could not shut down the machine because they were processing a critical order and the client would have gone out of business had they shut down. So he grabbed a grease gun to lubricate the grinding gears, got pulled into the gears, and lost his right arm below the elbow. The jury decided that greasing the gears was an unreasonable use of the machine. He recovered nothing.
Before considering a claim against a manufacturer, it is important that your personal injury attorney knows how to handle the “unreasonable use” defense. You need an experienced products liability lawyer. Call Peter Ventura at 508-755-7535 for a free consultation.