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Macpherson v. Buick Motor Co.

A famous 1916 New York Court of Appeals decision, MacPherson v. Buick Motor Co., 217 N.Y. 382, 111 N.E. 1050, expanded the classification of "inherently dangerous" products and thereby effectively eliminated the requirement of privity—a contractual relationship between the parties in cases that involve defective products that cause personal injury.

The Buick Motor Company manufactured automobiles that it sold to retailers who, in turn, sold them to consumers. The plaintiff, Donald MacPherson, bought a car from a dealer and was subsequently injured when the car collapsed during a drive. The accident was due to a defective wheel, which the defendant, Buick, did not make but purchased from another manufacturer. Evidence indicated that the defect could have been discovered by reasonable inspection, but none took place. The plaintiff sued the defendant for his personal injuries, but the defendant claimed that it was not liable for the wheel manufacturer's NEGLIGENCE. The state trial and intermediate appellate courts found for the plaintiff, and the defendant appealed to the Court of Appeals, the highest court of New York. The court narrowed the issue to whether the defendant owed a duty to anyone but the retailer to whom it sold the car.

In a majority opinion written by BENJAMIN CARDOZO, the court affirmed the judgment for the plaintiff. Since the defendant was a manufacturer of automobiles that, if defective, are inherently dangerous by virtue of their existence, it had a responsibility for the finished product, which included testing its various parts before placing it on the market for sale. The manufacturer could not avoid liability based upon the fact that it purchased the wheels from a reputable manufacturer, because it had a duty to inspect the car, which it failed to do. The defendant argued that since poisons, explosives, or comparable items that are normally used as "implements of destruction" were not involved, there was no "imminent danger" to the plaintiff's life. There was therefore, no basis for the imposition of liability upon a manufacturer to a third person, who was not a party to the contract between the manufacturer and seller of the dangerous product. The court rejected this argument, reasoning that if a product when negligently made poses a danger of personal injury, then the product is "a thing of danger," since injury is a foreseeable consequence of its use. Since the car had room for three persons and the retailer who bought the car from the manufacturer planned to resell it, ultimately to the plaintiff, it could be expected that injury could occur to persons who did not purchase the car directly from the manufacturer. The failure of the defendant—the manufacturer of the finished product for sale to the public—to inspect the car, and in light of the other factors mentioned, rendered the company liable to the plaintiff who was not in privity with it.

The rule of MacPherson v. Buick Motor Co. that eliminated the need for privity between a manufacturer and an individual suffering personal injury from a defectively made product became the majority rule in the United States and one of the fundamental principles of the law of PRODUCT LIABILITY.

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