Product Defects: Analyzing Who’s At Fault

Over the years, the legal responsibility for product defects and the damage they can cause has shifted from a buyer beware attitude to an environment of numerous lawsuits and claims against manufacturers.

The urban legend…

Recall the famous lawsuit that brought a windfall of millions to the individual who lifted up his Craftsman lawnmower by the edges to trim a hedge and suffered serious bodily injury. It was a clear case of greedy lawyers, a muddle-headed judge, and a bleeding heart jury. The case has become a cornerstone of movements to upend tort law. The one weakness in all this is that there was no multi-million dollar award or even a one dollar reward, because the case never happened. This modern fable or urban legend cannot be found in any court or insurance record, but it will doubtlessly be circulated for eons.

The nature of the beast…

Although the famous case above proved to be fictitious, there are many real cases where product defects caused physical injury or property loss. Some, the visible tip of the iceberg, such as the Pinto gas pipes and asbestos, are large class action lawsuits that receive extensive publicity and massive settlements. But the overwhelming majority of cases are smaller and relatively unknown. These often involve routine insurance claims where a cause for the property loss or injury needs to be determined. These cases include the dishwasher that floods a kitchen, the ladder that collapses during use, the wheel that departs from a car for no apparent reason, and …well, the list goes on.

What makes a product defective?

In the old days, a lawsuit for product related damages needed to prove the product was defective and that the maker was negligent. Over the years, the law has changed and today a number of factors are considered, such as; the likelihood and extent of injury or damage from the product, the warnings and instruction provided with the product, and whether it could have been made safer without defeating its utility. There are many law books and article written on this topic, but from a simple viewpoint a product can be defective because of:

  1. Design
  2. Manufacture and materials
  3. Installation
  4. Operation
  5. Maintenance

Case #1

A fleet operator hired a skilled mechanic to rebuild a diesel engine using a kit composed of both new and remanufactured parts. After a few thousand miles the connecting rod broke causing severe damage to the engine block and injectors plus equipment downtime. The insurance issue was whether the mechanic had incorrectly torqued the bolts or whether the parts defective. Engineering analysis showed classical metal fatigue marks originating at a sharp notch in the machined surface, a common cause of premature metal fracture, and that the bending of the parts could occur in only one way pointed to an improperly manufactured part.

Case #2

A 36-inch diameter ventilation fan powered by a 12 HP electric motor disengaged from the drive shaft during start up causing a serious injury to a nearby worker. The fan hub and blades, resembling an airplane propeller, had recently been sent to an independent shop for repairs. As part of the repairs the hub was removed and then replaced on the shaft. The insurance issue was whether the repair shop had failed to properly reassemble the parts or whether there was a flaw in the original design. Engineering analysis revealed that the fan attachment relied on friction between the hub and shaft and had no positive connection such as bolts or pins to carry the axial thrust. The hub maker, a supplier to the fan manufacturer, stated in their catalog that it was for torque transmission only and should not be used for axial loads. The conclusion was that the original design was at fault.

Case #3

A late model pickup truck was traveling on the interstate when the vehicle began to shake violently and struck another car. Although no one was injured, examination of the vehicle revealed that the drive shaft was bent into an L shape, and the aluminum transmission and transfer case housing were completely fractured. Records showed that the recommend servicing had been done at a certified dealer at 30,000 and 60,000 miles and there was no indication of abuse. Disassembly of the recovered parts showed that the center universal joint had melted from friction causing it to swing widely out of alignment. The rapid rotation of the shaft at 70mph created a large swinging weight that battered the vehicle underside and caused the crash. Engineering analysis determined that the U-joint melted due to a lack of grease and that this fitting had been missed, perhaps twice, by a certified dealer. In this case the product failed due to improper maintenance.

What to do if a product defect is suspected…

Capturing the facts is, as always, critical but can be difficult. Data plates (often stick-on decals) may be burned off, installation and operation manuals may be missing, original drawings showing physical locations may be missing or out of date, witness statements may be inaccurate and a clear picture of what happened may be murky. Assistance from professional engineers is often required to piece the puzzle together.

Many product defects have already been identified and can be found on the websites of the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. As a note most manufacturing companies are proud of their products and are interested in locating and correcting product failures and their technical support divisions may provide valuable information.

In conclusion, a clear determination of the most likely scenarios and the culpability of parts, products, design or maintenance can often pinpoint liability and lead to fair and reasonable settlements.

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