Products liability describes a type of claim—for injury caused by a defective product—and not a separate theory of liability. In the typical case, three legal doctrines may be asserted: (1) warranty, (2) negligence, and (3) strict liability.
If a seller asserts that a product will perform in a certain manner or has certain characteristics, he has given an express warranty, and he will be held liable for damages if the warranty is breached—that is, if the goods do not live up to the warranty. Not every conceivable claim is an express warranty; the courts permit a certain degree of “puffing.”
An implied warranty is one created by law. Goods sold by a merchant-seller carry an implied warranty of merchantability, meaning that they must possess certain characteristics, such as being of average quality for the type described and being fit for the ordinary purposes for which they are intended.
An implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose is created whenever a seller knows or has reason to know that the buyer is relying on the seller’s knowledge and skill to select a product for the buyer’s particular purposes.
Under UCC Article 2, the seller also warrants that he is conveying good title and that the goods are free of any rightful claim by a third person.
UCC Article 2 permits sellers to exclude or disclaim warranties in whole or in part. Thus a seller may exclude express warranties. He may also disclaim many implied warranties—for example, by noting that the sale is “as is.” The Magnuson-Moss Act sets out certain types of information that must be included in any written warranty. The act requires the manufacturer or seller to label the warranty as either “full” or “limited” depending on what types of defects are covered and what the customer must do to obtain repair or replacement. The act also abolishes “phantom warranties.”
Privity once stood as a bar to recovery in suits brought by those one or more steps removed in the distribution chain from the party who breached a warranty. But the nearly universal trend in the state courts has been to abolish privity as a defense.
Because various impediments stand in the way of warranty suits, courts have adopted a tort theory of strict liability, under which a seller is liable for injuries resulting from the sale of any product in a defective condition if it is unreasonably dangerous to the user or consumer. Typical issues in strict liability cases are these: Is the defendant a seller engaged in the business of selling? Was the product sold in a defective condition? Was it unreasonably dangerous, either on its face or because of a failure to warn? Did the product reach the consumer in an unchanged condition? Strict liability applies regardless of how careful the seller was and regardless of his lack of contractual relation with the consumer or user.
Manufacturers can also be held liable for negligence—most often for faulty design of products and inadequate warnings about the hazards of using the product.
The products-liability revolution prompted many state legislatures to enact certain laws limiting to some degree the manufacturer’s responsibility for defective products. These laws include statutes of repose and provide a number of other defenses.
- Ralph’s Hardware updated its accounting system and agreed to purchase a computer system from a manufacturer, Bits and Bytes (BB). During contract negotiations, BB’s sales representative promised that the system was “A-1” and “perfect.” However, the written contract, which the parties later signed, disclaimed all warranties, express and implied. After installation the computer produced only random numbers and letters, rather than the desired accounting information. Is BB liable for breaching an express warranty? Why?
- Kate owned a small grocery store. One day John went to the store and purchased a can of chip dip that was, unknown to Kate or John, adulterated. John became seriously ill after eating the dip and sued Kate for damages on the grounds that she breached an implied warranty of merchantability. Is Kate liable? Why?
- Carrie visited a neighborhood store to purchase some ham, which a salesperson cut by machine in the store. The next day she made a ham sandwich. In eating the sandwich, Carrie bit into a piece of cartilage in the ham. As a result, Carrie lost a tooth, had to undergo root canal treatments, and must now wear a full-coverage crown to replace the tooth. Is the store liable for the damage? Why?
- Clarence, a business executive, decided to hold a garage sale. At the sale, his neighbor Betty mentioned to Clarence that she was the catcher on her city-league baseball team and was having trouble catching knuckleball pitches, which required a special catcher’s mitt. Clarence pulled an old mitt from a pile of items that were on sale and said, “Here, try this.” Betty purchased the mitt but discovered during her next game that it didn’t work. Has Clarence breached an express or implied warranty? Why?
- Sarah purchased several elegant picture frames to hang in her dorm room. She also purchased a package of self-sticking hangers. Late one evening, while Sarah was studying business law in the library, the hangers came loose and her frames came crashing to the floor. After Sarah returned to her room and discovered the rubble, she examined the box in which the hangers were packaged and found the following language: “There are no warranties except for the description on this package and specifically there is NO IMPLIED WARRANTY OF MERCHANTABILITY.” Assuming the hangers are not of fair, average, ordinary quality, would the hanger company be liable for breaching an implied warranty of merchantability? Why?
- A thirteen-year-old boy received a Golfing Gizmo—a device for training novice golfers—as a gift from his mother. The label on the shipping carton and the cover of the instruction booklet urged players to “drive the ball with full power” and further stated: “COMPLETELY SAFE BALL WILL NOT HIT PLAYER.” But while using the device, the boy was hit in the eye by the ball. Should lack of privity be a defense to the manufacturer? The manufacturer argued that the Gizmo was a “completely safe” training device only when the ball is hit squarely, and—the defendant argued—plaintiffs could not reasonably expect the Gizmo to be “completely safe” under all circumstances, particularly those in which the player hits beneath the ball. What legal argument is this, and is it valid?
- A bank repossessed a boat and sold it to Donald. During the negotiations with Donald, Donald stated that he wanted to use the boat for charter service in Florida. The bank officers handling the sale made no representations concerning the boat during negotiations. Donald later discovered that the boat was defective and sued the bank for breach of warranty. Is the bank liable? Why?
- Tom Anderson, the produce manager at the Thriftway Market in Pasco, Washington, removed a box of bananas from the top of a stack of produce. When he reached for a lug of radishes that had been under the bananas, a six-inch spider—Heteropoda venatoria, commonly called a banana spider—leaped from some wet burlap onto his left hand and bit him. Nine months later he died of heart failure. His wife brought an action against Associated Grocers, parent company of Thriftway Market, on theories of (1) strict products liability under Restatement, Section 402(a); (2) breach of the implied warranty of merchantability; and (3) negligence. The trial court ruled against the plaintiff on all three theories. Was that a correct ruling? Explain.
- A broken water pipe flooded a switchboard at RCA’s office. The flood tripped the switchboard circuit breakers and deactivated the air-conditioning system. Three employees were assigned to fix it: an electrical technician with twelve years on-the-job training, a licensed electrician, and an electrical engineer with twenty years of experience who had studied power engineering in college. They switched on one of the circuit breakers, although the engineer said he knew that one was supposed to test the operation of a wet switchboard before putting it back into use. There was a “snap” and everyone ran from the room up the stairs and a “big ball of fire” came after them up the stairs. The plaintiffs argued that the manufacturer of the circuit breaker had been negligent in failing to give RCA adequate warnings about the circuit breakers. How should the court rule, and on what theory should it rule?
- Plaintiff’s business was to convert vans to RVs, and for this purpose it had used a 3M adhesive to laminate carpeting to the van walls. This adhesive, however, failed to hold the fabric in place in hot weather, so Plaintiff approached Northern Adhesive Co., a manufacturer of adhesives, to find a better one. Plaintiff told Northern why it wanted the adhesive, and Northern—Defendant—sent several samples to Plaintiff to experiment with. Northern told Plaintiff that one of the adhesives, Adhesive 7448, was “a match” for the 3M product that previously failed. Plaintiff tested the samples in a cool plant and determined that Adhesive 7448 was better than the 3M product. Defendant had said nothing except that “what they would ship would be like the sample. It would be the same chemistry.” Plaintiff used the adhesive during the fall and winter; by spring complaints of delamination came in: Adhesive 7448 failed just as the 3M product had. Over 500 vans had to be repaired. How should the court rule on Plaintiff’s claims of breach of (1) express warranty, (2) implied warranty of merchantability, and (3) implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose?
SELF CHECK QUESTIONS
- In a products-liability case
- only tort theories are typically asserted
- both tort and contract theories are typically asserted
- strict liability is asserted only when negligence is not asserted
- breach of warranty is not asserted along with strict liability
- An implied warranty of merchantability
- is created by an express warranty
- is created by law
- is impossible for a seller to disclaim
- can be disclaimed by a seller only if the disclaimer is in writing
- A possible defense to breach of warranty is
- lack of privity
- absence of an express warranty
- disclaimer of implied warranties
- all of the above
- Under the strict liability rule in Restatement, Section 402A, the seller is liable for all injuries resulting from a product
- even though all possible care has been exercised
- regardless of the lack of a contract with the user
- in both of the above situations
- in none of the above situations
- An individual selling her car could be liable
- for breaching the implied warranty of merchantability
- under the strict liability theory
- for breaching the implied warranty of fitness
- under two of the above