When a product liability claim is brought under the Consumer Protection Act 1987 (CPA), what are the elements that have to be proved, who has to prove them, and how are they to be proved? In the recent case of Hufford v Samsung Electronics, the court considered just this. But what are the implications of this case, which concerned a fridge freezer that had caught fire, for product liability cases involving medical devices that are implanted into the human body?

The central issue in Hufford was whether the product in question was defective. Under the CPA, there is very little guidance as to the extent to which a claimant is obliged to prove the precise nature of the defect alleged. As one would expect, lawyers for the claimant and defendant advanced different possible explanations as to the cause of the fire. The claimant’s case was that the fridge freezer was defective because it had caught fire during the course of its normal use and therefore its safety was “not such as persons generally are entitled to expect”. Meanwhile, the defendant argued that the claimant was required to identify with specificity the nature of the defect, and had failed to do so.

The court held that in a claim under the CPA, it is not necessary for a claimant to specify or identify the precise cause of a defect; it is enough to “prove existence of a defect in broad or general terms”.

The case appears to shed some light on the claimant’s obligations in a product liability claim under the CPA, but claimants might have to be cautious in their reliance upon this decision in product liability claims relating to medical devices. The CPA stipulates that a product is defective if its safety is not such as “persons generally are entitled to expect”. Claimants may rely on the case to seek to argue that failure of the product is enough to establish a defect and they are now relieved of the obligation to show the precise nature of the defect alleged. But the court is still required, in its assessment of what persons generally are entitled to expect, to take into account “all the circumstances” relating to the product.

In such cases, the design, manufacture, and marketing of a medical device can be extremely complex; no two individuals will react the same way to the same product; and an individual might have any number of complicating co-morbidity factors. Thus, when it comes to in vivo devices, we expect that the court will, as part of its assessment, need to examine competing explanations as to the cause of the alleged defect. It may not be so straight forward to apply a ruling on white goods to devices designed to be implanted into the human body.