Famous Cases of Product Liability

Today’s culture is a consumer culture, more so than it has ever been. The products we buy and use have a great impact on our lives. Every day we make choices as consumers, yet sometimes in spite of however much time and energy we put into making smart consumer choices, the purchases we make simply do not work as intended. Worse yet, sometimes those purchases end up harming or injuring us in some way. This is where product liability law steps in — holding manufacturers, retailers, distributors, and suppliers accountable when their products cause harm to their consumers.

Product liability cases have been brought forward for a wide array of different products and defects. People have sued companies over products ranging from hot beverages to children’s toys. No matter what the product, if it causes damage to your person, there is a case for product liability. Product liability cases not only bring these incidents to light, they can also be the catalyst for positive changes in such products.

Below is a list of five of the most famous, or perhaps infamous product liability cases that have been tried in the United States. A diverse array of cases, all of the products involved in these suits have drastically different uses, prices, and consumer bases. But even the most inexpensive or innocuous products can result in hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars in damages if they end up causing harm.

Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants

Perhaps one of the most famous cases of product liability in the U.S. this lawsuit sparked copious debates among consumers, talk show hosts, and lawyers. It is also frequently cited as a major influence on tort reform.

In 1994, a 79-year-old woman named Stella Liebeck sued McDonalds after a cup of their coffee spilled on her lap causing third-degree burns on her legs, buttocks, and groin.

The burns resulted in medical costs of nearly $200,000. The plaintiff’s lawyers made the case that at a temperature between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit, McDonald’s served a defective product, one that posed a greater risk for serious injury than coffee sold elsewhere. Coffee at other restaurants and establishments is generally served at around 160 degrees Fahrenheit. In spite of the fact that McDonald’s was well aware that other establishments only heated their coffee to this temperature, they mandated that their stores serve it at this higher temperature. At 190 degrees, this coffee was capable of causing injury to muscle and bone in seconds.

The jury found in favor of Mrs. Liebeck stating that McDonald’s was guilty of willful and malicious conduct. McDonald’s was ordered to pay her $2.7mn in punitive damages and $160,000 in medical expenses.

Bullock v. Phillip Morris

Tobacco companies have a rather long and turbulent history with product liability law. While there have been numerous different suits brought against Phillip Morris and other tobacco companies, this case stands out for the record-breaking amount of punitive damages awarded to the plaintiff.

In 2002, Betty Bullock, a 68-year-old woman diagnosed with lung cancer brought suit against tobacco giant Phillip Morris in a California court. Bullock claimed that her lung cancer and her addiction to cigarettes was a result of Phillip Morris’s negligence. She claimed that the company failed to warn her of the risks associated with smoking cigarettes by concealing information from the public and deliberately misleading people as to the dangers of their product.

The jury found in favor of Bullock, ordering Phillip Morris to pay $28bn in punitive damages and compensatory damages of $850,000.

Stern v. Dow Corning

Dow Corning is multinational American corporation specializing in silicone-based products, including breast implants. Numerous suits have been brought against Dow Corning and the implants they produce, the first of which being filed by a woman named Maria Stern.

Maria Stern claimed that the silicone in her breast implants had ruptured, spreading throughout her body and causing fatigue, joint pain, and autoimmune disease. While there was not adequate evidence proving that this was the cause of her health issues, there was evidence showing that Dow Corning was aware that their silicone breast implants were at risk for ruptures and in turn that they were negligent for failing to research the effects such ruptures could have on the health of their customers.

Maria Stern was awarded $200,000 in damages and $1.2mn worth of punitive damages. Furthermore, Stern’s suit was a stepping stone in helping to bring awareness of the potential dangers of silicone breast implants to the public, as well as a contributing factor in the increased regulation of silicone breast implants.

Toyota 

A product liability class action lawsuit was brought against Toyota after the company initiated a mass recall of its vehicles from several production lines. This was one of the biggest cases of product liability in recent decades.

Toyota issued a mass recall in 2010 of 7.5 million vehicles. The recall was issued due to a number of car crashes and fatalities resulting from the accelerator pedals of several models getting stuck under the floor mats of the car. This in turn led to a class-action lawsuit claiming Toyota was responsible for putting cars on the market that were at risk for unintended acceleration.

Toyota settled this case for $1.1bn, in addition to this part of the settlement agreement dictated that Toyota must add a brake-override system into all car models that suffered from sticky accelerator pedals and defective floor mats.

Anderson v. General Motors

General Motors has faced several large product liability suits for issues ranging from defective ignition switches to exploding gas tanks. This became the source of much debate regarding the increasingly large sums of money awarded in such cases.

Patricia Anderson was driving with her four children and family friend Jo Tigner in a 1979 Chevrolet Malibu when they were rear-ended, and their fuel tank exploded, resulting in terrible burns to the plaintiffs. During the trial, evidence was presented in the form of internal documents from General Motors showing that they had knowledge that the design of the car, specifically the placement of the gas tank, was unsafe and posed this kind of risk to it’s occupants.

The jury found in favor of the plaintiffs, awarding $4.9bn in punitive damages and compensatory damages of $107mn.

We buy products for myriad different purposes and reasons. Regardless of the reason behind a particular purchase, everyone is entitled to the use of safe and effective products. Product liability law is responsible for ensuring that consumers have legal recourse when their purchases are defective or unsafe. If you feel like you have been exposed to undue injury from a consumer product, don’t hesitate to seek legal representation. Law firms like David Heil in Melbourne offer free consultations and will advise you on whether you have a case.

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