The term products liability refers to claims for injuries caused by commercial products. Examples of such cases abound: A plaintiff is injured by a snowblower that lacks an adequate blade guard; a user of a prescription medication suffers an adverse side effect; a passenger in a car is injured when the brakes unaccountably fail; a child is caught under an electric garage door. This chapter addresses the basic theories of recovery available to such plaintiffs, with an emphasis on the cause of action for “strict products liability.”
The recognition of “strict liability” for injuries due to defective products was one of the most dramatic developments of twentieth-century tort law. But why did it happen? Why weren’t negligence law and other traditional remedies deemed adequate to remedy this class of tort claims?
Plaintiffs have long pleaded negligence claims in actions for injuries caused by products, and still do. But there are some significant hurdles to negligence recovery in products liability cases. For many years, the concept of “privity” barred many negligence claims against manufacturers. The privity requirement, relied on in the oft-cited case of Winterbottom v. Wright, 152 Eng. Rep. 402 (Ex. 1852), held that a seller of goods only owed a duty of care to the purchaser of the product. Under Winterbottom, if a manufacturer sold a defective stagecoach to a transit company, and a passenger was injured due to a defect in the coach, the manufacturer was not liable. The manufacturer was only “in privity” with its direct buyer, the transit company, and therefore only owed a duty of care to the transit company. The same principle applied if the defect caused the coach to veer off the road into a pedestrian: The lack of privity between the pedestrian and the manufacturer precluded recovery.
However, the privity requirement was rejected in MacPherson v. Buick Motor Co., 217 N.Y. 382 (N.Y. 1916), and virtually all courts today would follow MacPherson. See Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability §1 cmt. a. Courts now hold that a manufacturer owes a duty of care to all those who may foreseeably be injured by its products. Restatement (Second) of Torts §395 cmt. h, i. So, if that were the only problem with the negligence remedy, courts might not have felt the need to deploy other remedies to deal with product injuries.