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Possible Defendants in Product Liability Actions

Possible Defendants in Product Liability Actions

Product liability laws protect consumers from unsafe products. What happens if a consumer doesn’t know who manufactures the product? Can anyone else be held liable? What about sellers, resellers, assemblers, and manufacturers of component parts? Can anyone in the product chain from conception to purchase be held liable for a product’s defects? Can anyone in the product chain be held liable for all of the damages of an injured consumer?

Seller Liability

Whether a distributor or retailer or other part of the distribution chain of a product can be held liable for injuries due to a product defect is a matter of state law. In the past, laws greatly favored consumers, allowing them to recover for defective products from anyone in the chain. Recently, however, the tide has begun to change. Fears of hurting business in a stagnating economy have led a number of states to pass laws that protect distributors and retailers from product liability suits. For example, in Nebraska and Indiana, all sellers who are not manufacturers are immune from liability. In Delaware and Idaho, sellers cannot be held liable for defective products they sell if they do not manufacture the product and if the product comes in a sealed container.

In a recent case, a customer of Wal-Mart sued the retailer for facial burns she suffered as a result of using a skin lightening patch purchased at the store. Dismissing the case, a federal court in Minnesota ruled that, under Minnesota law, a consumer can only prevail in a strict liability suit against a product retailer where the consumer can show that the retailer exercised significant control over the manufacture of the product, the retailer had actual knowledge of the defect in the product, or the retailer created the defect in the product. Because the customer failed to demonstrate any knowledge of a defect on the part of Wal-Mart, the retailer could not be held liable.

Joint and Several Liability

Under the theory of joint and several liability, each defendant in a product liability action can be held liable for the entire amount of damages that the plaintiff is seeking. Thus, joint and several liability allows liability to be imposed on any defendant, regardless of the degree of culpability. Joint and several liability helps plaintiffs because it allows plaintiffs to recover an entire judgment even if the most culpable defendant lacks the resources to pay a judgment. Industry leaders argue that joint and several liability amounts to a hunt for the “deep pocket” and that those only minimally liable will bear the brunt of the cost.

A number of states have passed laws limiting joint and several liability. For example, Alaska law requires that judgment be entered against each party based on their relative percentage of fault. Montana, New Hampshire, Texas, and Wisconsin have limited joint and several liability to defendants who are more than 50 percent at fault. Hawaii, Idaho, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, Vermont, Washington and Wyoming have abolished joint and several liability altogether.

Copyright 2011 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.


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