Effectively Defending Against Products Liability Claims

May 31, 2023 | - News & Insights

Businesses that design, manufacture, or sell products to the public face an additional form of personal injury liability risk through their activities. Such businesses are often the target of products liability claims, which typically arise when a consumer alleges that they were injured by using the target business’ product. Products liability claims can result in huge financial losses, as certain types of products liability claims lend themselves well to mass torts and class actions. Litigating such claims can also require extensive use of expert witnesses, thereby increasing litigation costs. Businesses involved in designing, manufacturing, or selling to the public can mitigate those risks by working with a North Carolina products liability attorney

The Three Types of Products Liability Claims

North Carolina law recognizes three classes of products liability claims. Unlike many states, North Carolina courts do not recognize products liability claims based on strict liability. As such, plaintiffs bear the burden of proving negligence or intentional wrongdoing in every products liability case. 

Design Defects

Design defects are flaws in a product that occurred at the design stage and that make the product unreasonably dangerous for use by consumers. They are inherent to the product and may cause injury even when the product is used correctly and for its intended purpose. Design defects generally affect an entire product line rather than just one unit. To prevail on a design defect claim, the plaintiff must show that (1) the manufacturer acted unreasonably in designing the product, (2) this conduct was the proximate cause of harm, and (3) either of the following:

  • (a) alternative designs existed that would have minimized the risk of harm without substantially impairing the usefulness of the product, OR 
  • (b) the product’s design was so unreasonable that a reasonable person would not use or consume a product of that design. 

For assistance in defending against design defect claims or any other product liability claim, please contact a North Carolina products liability attorney. 

Manufacturing Defects

Manufacturing defects are errors during the manufacturing process that cause an otherwise reasonably safe product to become unreasonably dangerous for use by the public. They occur when the manufacture of the product departs from the intended design. Unlike design defects, they are not inherent to the product itself and generally affect only a single product or a production run rather than an entire product line.  

Failure to Warn 

Failure to warn occurs when a product presents a risk of injury to the consumer, but that risk is not obvious to the reasonable purchaser. In these cases, the consumer must have been using the product for its intended use and the manufacturer or seller must have known or should have known of the hidden danger. To prevail on a failure to warn claim, the plaintiff must show the following:

  • The defendant acted unreasonably in failing to provide a warning,
  • This conduct was the proximate cause of harm, and
  • At the time the product left the defendant’s control, the product without a warning created an unreasonably dangerous condition that the defendant knew or should have known of, or
  • After the product left the defendant’s control, it became aware that the product posed a substantial risk and failed to warn the consumer.

Failure to warn products liability cases can also arise where the warning is not obvious or clear or fails to warn of the specific danger the product poses. 

Defenses to Products Liability Claims 

There are a wide range of defenses available to manufacturers and sellers facing products liability claims, some of which are general to all tort claims and others that are specific to the products liability context. A North Carolina products liability attorney can help you pursue any of these defenses. 

Lack of Product Defect 

Proving that a product was defectively designed is a significant burden for plaintiffs to overcome. Merely because a plaintiff was injured by a product’s design does not necessarily mean that its design was defective. North Carolina law prohibits products liability actions that are based on an “inherent characteristic of the product that cannot be eliminated without substantially compromising the product’s usefulness or desirability.” Thus, a common defense in design defect cases is that there were no alternative safer designs available.

Warning Not Necessary  

A manufacturer’s duty to warn generally applies only to non-obvious risks of which the manufacturer is aware (or should be aware) but the consumer is not aware. A common defense in this context is that the danger the product posed was so open and obvious or within common knowledge that a warning was not necessary. For example, a book of matches generally need not display a warning, as it is common knowledge that matches spark fires and that fires can be dangerous. 

Contributory Negligence 

North Carolina is a contributory negligence state, meaning that any negligence by the plaintiff that contributed to their injuries generally is a bar to recovery. The contributory negligence defense in the products liability context commonly arises where the defendant alleges that the plaintiff misused the product, failed to exercise reasonable care, or failed to follow instructions or heed warnings. 

Assumption of the Risk 

Some products — like chainsaws, blowtorches, and nail guns — are inherently dangerous, and there are few ways to mitigate that risk without impairing their usefulness. The assumption of the risk defense typically arises when the plaintiff knows the risk of using the product but continues to use it anyway. It can also arise where the plaintiff knows of a product defect but continues to use it despite knowing about the defect and the danger the defect poses. 

Third-Party Modification of Product 

Manufacturers and sellers of products may be held liable for defective products only when those products cause harm due to defects that were present when they left the manufacturer or seller’s control. Third-party modification of a product after that point — including modification by the plaintiff — can bar recovery against a manufacturer or seller. However, an exception exists in cases where the modification was in accordance with the product’s instructions. 

Sealed Container 

Manufacturers and sellers may both be liable for defective products under many circumstances. However, sellers may avoid liability where the defective product was sold in a sealed container or where the seller had no opportunity to inspect the product in a manner that would have revealed the product defect. 

Contact a North Carolina Products Liability Attorney to Defeat a Defective Product Claim

For more information about defending against products liability claims, please contact a North Carolina products liability attorney at Harris, Creech, Ward & Blackerby by calling 252-638-6666 or using our online contact form.

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Harris, Creech, Ward & Blackerby, P.A.

325 Pollock Street, PO Drawer 1168,
New Bern, NC 28563

Tel: 252-638-6666
Fax: 252-638-3542

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