Seventy years ago, Judge Benjamin Cardozo rendered his now famous decision making Buick Motor Company liable for a defective wheel which fell off one MacPherson’s Buick and resulted in MacPherson’s injury.
Since then the court-made law of “products liability” has evolved into a wide array of legal liabilities for manufacturers who design or construct defective consumer products that injure users. Compared to the scope of hazardous products and consumer injuries documented by such agencies as the Consumer Product Safety Commission, there are, however, all too few successful product liability settlements or verdicts. But even this small dose of justice and deterrent is proving too much for manufacturers and insurance companies which are now demanding curtailments on consumer rights against corporate harms.
The Law of products liability is supposed to deter the building of dangerous products such as drugs, autos, ovens, power lawnmowers or workers’ equipment. A rush of successful suits is supposed to make manufacturers more safety-minded and stop producing products with defects. The reason? Because it becomes cheaper to be safe than to be indifferent to safety. In the past, such deterrence has worked in just this way.
Now comes a mounting counterattack by business against the common law system of imposing product liability. In a barrage of speeches and statements, the insurance industry and other companies talk vaguely of millions of claims, huge verdicts, and imminent corporate bankruptcies to justify their skyrocketing claims.
But Search as one may, one cannot find any hard data to substantiate the alleged “products liability crisis.” T. Lawrence Jones, president of the American Insurance Association, noted “a good data base is lacking” on claims and losses. He explained this was due historically to the absence of any need by the insurance industry for setting rates. Jones pledged a vigorous effort to assemble the information.
In the meantime, Jones and his industry colleagues are not waiting before they recommend some fairly drastic restrictions on consumer rights to bring such suits and to recover adequate compensation after suits are filed.
Here are some samples of what industry intends to get through state legislatures:
1. Shorten the statue of limitations by starting the time period for filing suit from the defective act of the company instead of from the date of the injury.
No liability if the product conforms to the state of the art at the time of manufacture (even if the state of the art itself is subpar).
Preventing workers from suing manufacturers of dangerous equipment by making workers’ compensation law (often called “slot machine justice” by its critics) the sole remedy for worker injuries.
Limitation on the dollar amount of liability
S. Non-admissibility in evidence of post accident improvements (even to show that such improvement was feasible and economic before the culpable product was produced).
There are many other changes envisioned in the tort law of hazardous products — all alleviating manufacturers and insurance companies from strenuous preventive safety measures.