XX. Products Liability: Manufacturing Defects | Samantha Bates | April 25, 2017


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XX. Products Liability: Manufacturing Defects

Original Creator: Jonathan Zittrain Current Version: Samantha Bates Show/Hide

Most injuries arising from products used to be resolvable as negligence claims against the manufacturer. Old-fashioned privity requirements might get in the way if one bought from a retailer rather than the manufacturer, and the common law evolved to try to deal with that. Separate questions arose around whether there might be a stricter standard for a defendant than negligence. When a radio is purchased and turns out not to function, we do not inquire about whether the seller was negligent — the seller simply owes a remedy in warranty, whether or not the fault in the radio was the result of an absence of due care, so long as it originated in the factory. But warranty remedies have tended to be limited to replacement costs rather than damages for harm, and privity requirements are especially strong when arising from contract, as warranty does. The 1960’s saw American law evolve to establish a duty in tort, rather than contract, for products to function as promised, not causing unexpected harm, without an inquiry into negligence.

So if you’re hurt by a poorly made product, you might well have a straightforward negligence case against the manufacturer. But, again, as mass production ramped up over the last century, some judges found the existing negligence frame unsatisfactory. California’s Escola case is famous not for its majority opinion but its concurrence, one in which Justice Traynor urges a seemingly entirely new regime for the burgeoning number of cases in which a product hurts a consumer: strict liability. Within a few years, Traynor’s vision become a majority one in many jurisdictions, including his own California, though with enough caveats that the “strict” is probably no longer the best moniker. Instead, it’s a regime all its own: products liability. This and the next section’s cases look at products liability and its caveats, including what would become three major types of cases brought under its rubric: manufacturing defect, design defect, and failure of warnings. As you read these cases, it’s worth considering, both in theory and in practice, when a case that would work under products liability would fail in plain negligence – or vice versa.


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    1. 1.1 Show/Hide More MacPherson v. Buick Motor Co.--"The Broken Wooden Wheel Case"
      Original Creator: Jonathan Zittrain Current Version: Samantha Bates
      Should a manufacturer be liable for harm caused by defective products if the person harmed is not the person whom the manufacturer sold the product to?
      Defendant sold an automobile to a retail dealer, who then resold it to the plaintiff. While the plaintiff was in the car, it suddenly collapsed, throwing him out of the car and injuring him. One of the wheels was made of defective wood and had crumbled at the time of the accident. Although the defendant had purchased the wheel from another manufacturer, the defect could have been discovered by reasonable inspection.
    2. 1.2 Show/Hide More Ryan v. Progressive Grocery Stores, Inc.--"The Pin in the Bread Case"
      Original Creator: Jonathan Zittrain Current Version: Samantha Bates
      Should mere sellers of a defective good be liable for latent defects that are likely created by the manufacturer?
      Plaintiff was injured when he bit into a loaf of bread that had a pin in it. The loaf had been purchased from the defendant's store. At the time of the purchase, the plaintiff's wife had specified the brand of bread. The defendant's salesman gave the plaintiff's wife the desired loaf of bread, still wrapped in a factory-sealed package.
    3. 1.3 Show/Hide More Escola v. Coca Cola Bottling Company of Fresno--"The Exploding Coke Bottle Case"
      Original Creator: Jonathan Zittrain Current Version: Samantha Bates
      Should manufacturers face potential towards any individual injured by defective products, even if there is no direct transaction between the injured individual and the manufacturer?
      Plaintiff—a waitress in a restaurant—was injured when a glass bottle of Coca Cola exploded in her hand while she was stocking a refrigerator.
    1. 2.1 Show/Hide More Keen v. Dominick's Finer Foods, Inc.--"The Defective Shopping Cart"
      Original Creator: Jonathan Zittrain Current Version: Samantha Bates
      Should businesses be liable for defective products which are gratuitously provided to facilitate sales, and are not objects of sale themselves?
      Plaintiff is injured by a defective shopping cart in defendant’s grocery store.
    1. 3.1 Show/Hide More Rix v. General Motors Corp.--"The Truck that couldn't Brake"
      Original Creator: Jonathan Zittrain Current Version: Samantha Bates
      This case contrasts manufacturing and design defects by analyzing each products liability theory in parallel.
      Plaintiff was injured when a truck hit him from behind due to its brake system falling apart. The truck was manufactured by the defendant motor corporation, but modified after-sale by the dealer. Due to the weight of the after-sale modification, it is possible that the accident would have occurred anyway as the installed brake system may have lacked sufficient braking power to stop the truck. However, at the time of purchase, the defendant motor corporation offered an alternative brake system that may have been powerful enough to stop the modified truck.
    1. 4.1 Show/Hide More Emery v. Federated Foods, Inc.--"The Toddlers Shouldn't Eat Marshmallows Case"
      Original Creator: Jonathan Zittrain Current Version: Samantha Bates
      Aside from manufacturing and design defects, should courts hold manufacturer's liable for a “failure to warn” customers of the risks involved in the use of a product?
      Plaintiff was a toddler who choked on marshmallows manufactured by the defendant, and thereby suffered severe brain damage. The bag the marshmallows came in had no labels identifying marshmallows as a choking hazard for young children. The plaintiff did not claim that the marshmallows were improperly manufactured or designed. Rather, the plaintiff claimed the defendant should be liable for failure to warn consumers that marshmallows are a choking hazard for young children.
    1. 5.1 Show/Hide More Restatement Approach to Products Liability
      Restatement Approach to Products Liability

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July 24, 2017

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Samantha Bates

Research Associate

Harvard Law School, Berkman Center

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