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The Strict Letter of the Law

Sometimes, regardless of how careful you are or how careless an injured victim was, you can still be held liable for damages. It’s a legal doctrine called strict liability. And the principle can be applied in product liability cases.

In general, strict liability applies to inherently dangerous activities, such as keeping wild animals near small children or blasting a building site in the middle of a city with explosives. If the animal or the blast hurts someone, the defendant is generally held responsible regardless of any “fault” on the victim’s part. Under strict liability laws, anyone who engages in an activity known to endanger others assumes the responsibility for damages.

Proof of Negligence

   There are no federal laws for strict liability. The laws are written and enforced at the state level and can vary widely from one state to another.
   In some states, a plaintiff must show that the manufacturer or seller was negligent in making or selling a defective or dangerous product.
   However, these states have an additional rule that has the same practical effect as strict liability. This legal doctrine is called “res ipsa loquitur.” Translated, it means “the thing speaks for itself.” It means that, if a product with a dangerous defect is sold, someone in the manufacturing or sales process must have been negligent — or else the defect wouldn’t be there.

The principle can also be applied in product liability cases. In order to establish strict liability in such cases, a plaintiff must show these three conditions:

  • The product had an “unreasonably dangerous” defect that occurred either in the design, manufacture or handling and shipment of the product.
  • The defect caused an injury while the product was being used in the way it was intended.
  • The product was not substantially changed from the condition in which it was sold.

Manufacturers and sellers might have a knowledge-based defense to a claim of strict liability. In other words, a potential plaintiff may not be able to claim strict liability if he or she knew about a defect and continued to use the product.

And most states have laws limiting the length of time that a manufacturer or seller can be held liable under strict liability rules. The limits are usually between six and twelve years after a product is sold.

All jurisdictions require a connection between the product defect and the injury. An attorney representing a manufacturer might argue that the plaintiff’s injury was simply not caused by the defect. Many product liability cases turn on an expert who establishes or denies a link between an alleged defect and an injury. If your company is served with a strict liability case based on a product defect, your lawyer can find experts whose testimony will help your defense.