Defects in Design
Product liability cases involving design defects generally focus on the manufacturer's decisions in making a product, especially with respect to decisions regarding a product's safety. Unlike manufacturing defect cases, which focus on errors that a manufacturer made while actually making the product, design defect cases focus on the manufacturer's plans in producing the product.
What Is a Defect in Design?
A company's liability for a design defect occurs when there was a foreseeable risk posed by the product when the product was manufactured as intended and used for its intended purposes. In many states, plaintiffs also have to show that the risk could have been reduced or avoided by the adoption of a reasonable alternative design, which was:
- Feasible, in other words, the manufacturer had the ability to produce it;
- Economically feasible, in other words, it would not cost too much to make the product with the modification; and
- Not in opposition to the product's intended purpose, in other words, the product would still perform the function for which it was created.
Alternative Designs and Cost Benefit Analyses
Many of the tests for whether an alternative design is feasible revolve around whether the design would cost "too much." But how much is too much?
To answer this question, courts (as well as many internal compliance departments) employ what's known as a cost-benefit analysis. This means that they estimate additional cost of the safer alternative design, and weigh that against the estimated cost of any damage that might occur if the modification is not made. These damages include medical bills, missed time off from work and the costs of lawsuits.
Design Defect Example
For example, assume that a metal fan was covered by a guard, but the openings in the guard were three-quarters of an inch wide. In using the fan, the plaintiff's hand slips between the gaps in the guard, and the plaintiff is injured by the blades of the fan. The plaintiff may base a product liability suit on the design of the fan, arguing that the guard's openings were unreasonably large and that it was foreseeable that someone's hand would touch the blades.
In this case, there are many alternative designs that might have prevented the injury. The gaps in the guard could have been smaller, so that it would be impossible for someone's hand to pass through but air would still be able to pass unimpeded.
The court would then ask for an estimated cost of creating fan guards with small slots. It would also estimate the average cost of the medical bills associated with fan related injuries, and multiply that by the estimated number of fan related injuries. If the cost of making the smaller hand guards is less than the cost of medical bill from fan injuries, the smaller guard would be considered economically feasible.