The legal field of “products liability” has been highlighted recently with the announcement that many previous years of General Motors’ vehicles have had ignition switch problems. The firestorm in the media can be confusing as consumers try to figure out who is in charge and what is to be done. Early criticism has focused on the National Highway Transportation Administration, the arm of the federal government which regulates the auto industry. GM has blamed its parts suppliers and promised a full investigation. Congressional investigators are calling for fines and penalties, and these are likely to be levied in record amounts. In all of this, what is to be done for injury victims?
Indeed, the din surrounding these high profile product failures can be quite confusing. First, let’s remember that products liability cases remain largely under the control of our court system. While certain product manufacturers (like the auto industry) are highly regulated and are, therefore, subject to investigation, those investigations rarely translate into direct compensation for injured consumers.
The best bet for someone injured by a product is to consult with a products liability attorney, but beware; even when we simplify matters like this as “just” court cases, in the same breath, we have to say that the courts have not taken a uniform approach to products liability law.
Products liability law is based upon one old legal concept and one concept which is relatively new. The old concept is that of negligence. Most people know that careless or “negligent” driving can get them sued. The same is true for products. If a manufacturer is negligent in the design, manufacture or marketing of a product, it can also be sued. This type of negligence can, however, be surprisingly hard to prove. With modern manufacturing techniques, most companies can show a level of quality control and inspection which may keep them from having to pay damages.
Products liability attorneys, therefore, resort frequently to the second theory of liability: Product “defects”. Under this theory, the injury victim needs only to prove that the product was “unreasonably dangerous” or “unfit” when it was placed in the stream of commerce. The injury victim must still prove that safer designs were available and that the product did not satisfy the legal obligations for safe use, but the burden of proof is less.
This brings us back around to the regulatory circus surrounding the GM case. While the failures of regulators may not be directly relevant to injury victims, the information which is about to be dredged up in Congressional inquiries will be hugely beneficial to those bringing claims. Ultimately, we predict that GM will end up paying hundreds of millions of dollars for this problem: it had designed an ignition switch could only be turned off with a significant amount of torque. Apparently, the one that it installed in many vehicles failed to meet its own specifications.
And, so it goes for many other products. Whether it is hip implants, defective drugs, crashing airplanes, toxic pesticides, appliances which burst into flames or any of a host of other defective products, Americans will continue to be injured from the things that they buy, use and consume. Many of these accidents can be attributed to improper use or other problems which simply could not be anticipated. Many will be found to be the result of negligence and defect which will entitle the injury victim to compensation. Which applies to your case? Only a consultation with a competent personal injury or products liability expert will allow you to tell for sure.