In a product liability lawsuit, a claimant alleges that a product malfunctioned, failed to work properly, or was too dangerous and as a result caused one or more persons to suffer bodily injury or death. The claimant seeks to hold the designer, manufacturer, distributor, and/or seller of the defective product liable for damages arising from the injuries or death caused by that unsafe product. A product subject to liability litigation can be anything that is manufactured or produced and then placed in the stream of commerce for purchase or consumption by the public.
A manufacturer is strictly liable in tort when an article is placed on the market, knowing that it will be used without inspection for defects and the same proves to have a defect that causes injury to a human being. It is sufficient for a claimant to prove that he/she was injured while using the product in a way it had been intended to be used. The product would have had a manufacturing defect that the claimant was unaware of and which made the product unsafe for its intended use[i].
The rule which requires privity of contract in product liability cases will not be used to defeat a claim based upon a defective product unreasonably dangerous to a nonprivity user[ii]. In product liability cases, the rule of strict liability in tort will be applied[iii]. The liability of a manufacturer or a seller for injury or death caused by a defect in a boat or its parts, supplies, or equipment is one of strict liability[iv].
In boat injury cases, liability will be imposed on a manufacturer or a seller of a boat or its parts, supplies, or equipment for injuries or damages according to the circumstances of the case. Liability can be imposed on a manufacturer for injury caused by:
- a fuel leak;
- a fire-producing defect in the vessel;
- a defect in the boat’s steering or starting controls; or
- other manufacturing defects.
In Adler v. Univ. Boat Mart,[v] the claimant and his friends were sailing in boat and it capsized. The claimant drowned. The boat was found to have a loose patch covering a hole in the bottom of its hull. Water seeped in through the loose patch and eventually led to the capsizing of the boat. All evidence reasonably excluded the possibility that water, which was filling the boat, came from any source other than the defective patch. The defendant argued that the claimant was guilty of contributory negligence when he caused the boat to be drawn by placing excess weight on one side of the boat, precipitating its capsize. The court in this case did not hold the deceased claimant “to the same degree of care as when he would have had time for reflection because he was confronted with a sudden peril, requiring instinctive action”[vi].
Punitive damages can be awarded in a product liability action based on strict liability. Damages in tort actions are generally intended only to compensate. Punitive damages are allowed in exceptional cases for the purpose of punishing a tortfeasor and deterring both the tortfeasor and others from like conduct[vii].
[i] Dippel v. Sciano, 37 Wis. 2d 443 (Wis. 1967)
[ii] Dippel v. Sciano, 37 Wis. 2d 443, 459 (Wis. 1967)
[iii] Restat 2d of Torts, § 402A
[iv] 1 A.L.R.4th 411, 1b 78 A.L.R.2d 460, 1
[v] 63 Wn.2d 334 (Wash. 1963)
[vi] Poling v. Charbonneau Packing Corp., 45 Wn.2d 845 (Wash. 1954)
[vii] Fischer v. Johns-Manville Corps., 193 N.J. Super. 113, 120 (App.Div. 1984)