The products we use in day-to-day life range from medications to bicycles to household cleaners to cell phones. When we use these items for their intended purpose, we don’t expect to be harmed by them. Yet design defects, manufacturing defects, and failure to warn claims all arise from that unexpected harm. Product liability law is now largely governed by statute. But the case law preceding the statutes illustrates the underlying rationale for the application of strict liability to product liability cases.
The doctrine of privity controlled product liability law until the 1916 case of MacPherson v. Buick Motor Co. The doctrine of privity prevented those injured by products from recovering in tort unless they had a contractual relationship with the manufacturer of the product, not just the seller. In MacPherson, the defendant was a manufacturer of automobiles. It sold an automobile to a retail dealer, who in turn sold it to the plaintiff. While the plaintiff was in the car, it suddenly collapsed and he was thrown out of the car and injured. One of the wheels, which were made by a different manufacturer, was made of defective wood, and its spokes crumbled. The issue was whether the defendant owed a duty of care to anyone but the immediate purchaser. Macpherson held that lack of privity is not a defense if it is foreseeable that the product, if negligently made, is likely to cause injury to a class of persons that includes the plaintiff.
The 1941 case Escola v. Coca Cola Bottling Co. of Fresno, finding the manufacturer liable for injuries caused by an exploding bottle of Coke under a theory of res ipsa loquitor, also set forth a convincing rationale for strict liability in product defect cases. In a concurring opinion, California Supreme Court Justice Roger Traynor explained his belief that “a manufacturer incurs an absolute liability when an article that he has placed on the market, knowing that it is to be used without inspection, proves to have a defect that causes injury to human beings.” He explained: “It is to the public interest to discourage the marketing of products having defects that are a menace to the public. If such products nevertheless find their way into the market it is to the public interest to place the responsibility for whatever injury they may cause upon the manufacturer.”
In 1960, in Henningsen v. Bloomfield Motors, Inc., the New Jersey Supreme Court abolished the privity doctrine’s limitation on product liability and also held implied warranties run to the foreseeable consumer of the product. Henningsen involved a car accident allegedly caused by a manufacturing defect in the vehicle. While driving, the car’s steering wheel malfunctioned and the car crashed. It was not possible to determine whether the steering wheel was defective. The express warranty’s limitation of damages to replacement of defective parts was held invalid and the plaintiff’s personal injury lawsuit was allowed to proceed.
In 1963, the California Supreme Court adopted the doctrine of strict liability in tort for defective products in Greenman v. Yuba Power Products, Inc. In Greenman, the plaintiff brought an action for damages against the retailer and the manufacturer of a Shopsmith, a combination power tool. Plaintiff was using the Shopsmith as a lathe when the piece of wood suddenly flew out of the machine and struck him on the forehead, inflicting serious injuries. Setting the standard for the adoption of strict liability in product liability, the Greenman Court held: (i) the manufacturer placed a product on the market; (ii) knowing that it is to be used without inspection for defects; (iii) that proved to have a defect and (iv) that caused an injury. The Greenman Court held that to establish liability, it is sufficient that plaintiff was injured as a result of a defect in design and manufacture, while using the product as it was intended to be used. Over the next couple of decades, most other states adopted this standard.
Greenman marked the culmination of a progression from the doctrine of privity to strict liability for product defects which, as noted above, is now largely governed by statute.
The New Jersey Product Liability Act (“NJPLA”) provides the sole basis for relief available to consumers in New Jersey who are injured by a defective product. The NJPLA controls “any claim or action brought by a claimant for harm caused by a product, irrespective of the theory underlying the claim, except action for harm caused by breach of express warranty.” Thus, as outlined by the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division in Green v. Gen. Motors Corp., the NJPLA subsumes all causes of action for negligence, implied warranty, misrepresentation and Consumer Fraud Act violations, and consolidates the plaintiff’s claims into a single cause of action under a theory of strict liability.
To succeed in an action under the NJPLA, a plaintiff must prove that the product was not reasonably fit, suitable or safe for its intended purpose because it contained a manufacturing defect, failed to contain adequate warnings or instructions, or was designed in a defective manner.
In order to prevail on a manufacturing defect claim, the plaintiff must prove that the product “deviated from the design specifications, formulae, or performance standards of the manufacturer or from otherwise identical units manufactured to the same manufacturing specifications or formulae.”
In order to prevail on a failure to warn claim, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant did not provide an adequate product warning or instruction. An adequate product warning or instruction is “one that a reasonably prudent person in the same or similar circumstances would have provided with respect to the danger and that communicates adequate information on the dangers and safe use of the product, taking into account the characteristics of, and the ordinary knowledge common to, the persons by whom the product is intended to be used.” With regard to pharmaceutical products, this standard applies while “taking into account the characteristics of, and the ordinary knowledge common to, the prescribing physician.” This is known as the “Learned Intermediary Doctrine.” Moreover, in that same context, under certain circumstances a rebuttable presumption can arise that a warning or instruction for a drug or device is adequate if it has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”).
To establish a product liability claim based on a design defect, as held by the New Jersey Supreme Court in Lewis v. Am Cyanamid, the plaintiff “must prove either that the product’s risks outweighed its utility or that the product could have been designed in an alternative manner so as to minimize or eliminate the risk of harm.” When the plaintiff advances an alternative design theory, the plaintiff must show that the alternative design is “both practical and feasible.” However, the defendant is permitted to assert a “state of the art” defense. To successfully assert a state of the art defense, the defendant must prove that the technological state of the art at the time the product left its control did not permit any reasonably safer alternative design.