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Product Liability

Historical Development

The history of the law of product liability is largely a history of the erosion of the doctrine of privity, which states that an injured person can sue the negligent person only if he or she was a party to the transaction with the injured person. In other words, a defendant's duty of reasonable care arose only from the contract, and only a party to that contract could sue for its breach. This meant that a negligent manufacturer who sold a product to a retailer, who in turn sold it to the plaintiff, was effectively insulated from liability. The plaintiff was usually without a remedy in tort because it was the manufacturer and not the retailer whose negligence caused the harm.

The privity doctrine dominated nineteenth-century law, yet courts created exceptions to avoid denying an injured plaintiff a remedy. Soon privity of contract was not required where the seller fraudulently concealed the defect or where the products were inherently or imminently dangerous to human life or health, such as poisons or guns. The decisions then began to expand these exceptions. Some courts dropped the FRAUD requirement. A concealed defect coupled with some sort of "invitation" by the defendant to use the product was enough. In a few cases, the term imminently dangerous was construed to mean especially dangerous by reason of the defect itself and not necessarily dangerous per se. For example, products intended for human consumption, a defective scaffold, and a coffee urn that exploded would be considered imminently dangerous.

The seminal case of MACPHERSON V. BUICK MOTOR CO., 217 N.Y. 382, 111 N.E. 1050 (N.Y. 1916), broadened the category of "inherently" or "imminently" dangerous products so as to effectively abolish the privity requirement in negligence cases. It 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. Because this is essentially the test for negligence, the exception swallowed the rule. The MacPherson case quickly became a leading authority, and the privity rule in negligence cases soon was ignored. Increasing public sympathy for victims of industrial negligence also contributed to the demise of the rule.

In warranty, a similar privity limitation was imposed, in part because warranties were thought to be an integral part of the sales contract. Beginning in the early twentieth century, an exception to the privity rule developed for cases involving products intended for human consumption (food, beverages, drugs) and eventually also for products intended for "intimate bodily use" (e.g., cosmetics) so that the warranty in these cases extended to the ultimate consumer. In the case of express warranties, which could be said to be made to the public generally, the privity requirement was abandoned during the 1930s. For example, a manufacturer's statement in literature distributed with an automobile that the windshield was "shatterproof" constituted an express warranty to the purchaser that the windshield would not break (Baxter v. Ford Motor Co., 168 Wash. 456, 12 P.2d 409 [Wash. 1932]).

But with respect to implied warranties, exception to the privity rule did not extend beyond food, drink, and similar products until Henningsen v. Bloomfield Motors, Inc., 32 N.J. 358, 161 A.2d 69 (1960). In this case, the New Jersey Supreme Court abolished the privity limitation generally and held that the implied warranties run to the foreseeable ultimate user or consumer of the product. The Henningsen decision, which also invalidated the manufacturer's attempted disclaimer of IMPLIED WARRANTY liability, has been followed in almost all jurisdictions.

From 1930 to 1960, various legal writers and a few judges discussed the creation of strict liability in tort for defective products. The best-known judicial exposition of this view was California Supreme Court Justice Roger John Traynor's concurring opinion in Escola v. Coca Cola Bottling Co. of Fresno, 24 Cal. 2d 453, 150 P.2d 436 (1944). A number of justifications have been advanced for strict liability: negligence is often too difficult to prove; strict liability can be accomplished through a series of actions for breach of warranty; strict liability provides needed safety incentives; the manufacturer is in the best position to either prevent the harm or insure or spread the cost of the risk; and the manufacturer of a product induces consumer reliance on the expectation of the product's safety and should be made to stand behind the product.

Finally, in 1963, in Greenman v. Yuba Power Products, Inc., 59 Cal. 2d 57, 377 P.2d 897, the California Supreme Court adopted strict tort liability for defective products. Within a short time, strict liability swept the country and was, as of 2003, the law in all but a few states.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Prerogative orders to ProhibitionProduct Liability - Theories Of Liability, Historical Development, Negligence, Breach Of Warranty, Strict Liability, Defects