Product Liability Suits

With so many safety regulatory agencies twiddling their’ thumbs while preventable human casualties continue, a number of Senators, including Connecticut’s Chris Dodd and Joseph Lieberman, are backing a bill which starts making it harder for injured Americans to use historic rights in court against the manufacturers of dangerous products that harmed them. Part of the attack on the civil justice system is raw greed and power, backed by a well-heeled corporate defendants’ lobby pouring money into political campaigns and media advertisements. These companies don’t like being sued when their negligence, or worse, leads to loss of lives or serious injuries. For many of these insured companies, the money they are ordered to pay by the courts is the least of their irritations.

What they most dislike is that their own behavior and their internal coverups, memoranda and tests are made public to widespread adverse publicity and frequently they have to redesign their products, attach warnings to their goods or change their unsafe conditions and practices.

It is a rare company that will admit to a lawsuit making it a safer company for workers, consumers or the environment. However, in response to a survey by the National Conference Board, an industry research association, a goodly number of large company claims specialists admitted that a principal result of product liability lawsuits have led to their companies’ products being made safer for sale.

Far better were they to divulge concrete examples. For the more Americans know that year after year one lonely lawsuit after another, up against great odds, has made life in America safer for millions of people. Lawyers call this result the “deterrent effect” of such lawsuits and here are just a few samples of many to remember and recount.

A popular circular saw was redesigned for safety after the electrocution death of a 23 year-old carpenter resulted in a jury verdict. The manufacturer of PAM antistick cooking spray removed a deadly gas from its aerosol cans after a boy’s fatality led to a lawsuit. One hundred and forty similar previous deaths from the product were known to this indifferent manufacturer.

Lawsuits alerted the nation to the deaths of hundreds of youngsters from three and four-wheel all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) as well as over a half million injuries. Information disclosed in this litigation pushed an otherwise inert government agency under Reagan to ban sales to new three wheeled ATVs or any ATVs’ use by children.

A 1988 lawsuit claiming hazardous product design was settled, and with a few weeks, Black & Decker recalled nearly 500,000 miter saws to improve the guard design.

In 1980 the giant Las Vegas’s MGM Grand Hotel fire took 85 lives and burned over 500 guests. Hundreds of legal claims were filed against the hotel which admitted liability and settled out of court. The MGM Grand and other hotels in the Las Vegas area improved their fire warning systems and emergency response plans.

Transmissions in certain John Deere bulldozers were corrected in a mass recall following the death of a worker in the early Eighties. Deere had known about the problem since 1972, but it took a lawsuit, not a sleepy regulatory agency to spark action.

Improvements in highway locations, warnings against high voltage, recalls or redesign of cars, greater awareness by patients of the risks of Halcion and breast implants, the nation’s phaseout of asbestos, the averting of gas explosions, safer hospital operating rooms, better warnings about medicine complications, hospital responsibility for infection control, and the redesign of aircraft from the DC-10 cargo door to the replacement of Cessna 150’s aerodynamic flaw resulted from lawsuits arising out of terrible tragedies.

Have you noticed that American car makers now put the full shoulder/lap belts in rear seats? This started in 1990, two years before the federal auto safety agency under Bush required them to do so. Why? Numerous jury verdicts and settlements against manufacturers underlined how lap belts in rear seats could cause severe injuries. The lawsuits sparked the media to report which in turn moved the sluggish federal agency to act.

Increasingly, the courts are protecting whistle-blowers who speak out against dangerously manufactured products, workplace hazards in industry or harmful housing construction or appliances.

If there are great gaps in the public’s knowledge regarding the failure of agencies to use good laws to issue enforced safety standards, there is an even greater unawareness of the ways safety lawsuits improve the safety of millions of people who never heard of these lawsuits. For those people who read or hear about them, it is likely that more than a few of them become more alert to avoid similar products or hazards.

These lawsuits do more than fill in some yawning gaps left by passive safety agencies in Washington. The shocking information disclosed in pre-trial or trial proceedings have pushed these agencies to act or, sometimes, have pushed state legislatures and Congress to enact long overdue laws from infant formula to tire safety.

A few weeks ago I received a letter from the father of a son killed in a car crash when his seat belt failed. The father desperately wanted the manufacturer to make its belt designs safer and wrote that he was getting nowhere. He did not want his son to have died in vain.

The distressed father increased the odds against his succeeding, when he refused to sue the company and, against his insurer’s advice, sold the vehicle (the evidence) to the auto company’s own carrier! One more tragic reason why more people need to know how law suits have made a difference.

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