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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. A design defect occurs when there is an inherent flaw or error in a product’s design that renders it unreasonably dangerous.

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.

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.

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.

When estimating legal costs, two basic kinds of legal claims are most likely to be discussed in a cost benefit analysis: negligence and strict liability.

A negligence claim is a theory of liability in which a plaintiff alleges that a manufacturer knew or should have known of the risk associated with its product. In a negligence analysis, the cost-benefit analysis is focused on the conduct of the manufacturer. The key issue is: when the manufacturer created the product, were they aware that they could have made the product safer? A potential plaintiff will have a stronger argument if he or she can prove that the increased cost from the safer design wouldn’t have greatly diminished the manufacturer’s profit margins.

A strict liability claim is a theory of liability that applies when a manufacturer places a defective product that poses an unreasonable danger in the marketplace. Even if the product was considered dangerous or volatile by nature, such as knives or fireworks, the manufacturer may still be liable regardless of how careful they were. While the cost benefit analysis for negligence is focused on the conduct, the focus in a strict liability case is on the product itself. In other words, the plaintiff argues that the risks of the product outweigh its benefits.

Consumer Expectations Test

A small number of jurisdictions still use an earlier standard known as the “consumer expectations test.” This standard asks whether the danger posed by the product goes beyond the expectations of the ordinary consumer. However, this standard can be difficult to apply in a consistent fashion because consumer expectations can vary widely from person to person. Most jurisdictions have adopted the alternative design test because it offers more objective criteria.

To find out more about Product Liability suits, see FindLaw's articles about defects in manufacturing or defects in warnings. If you're interested in taking legal action, consult with a product liability attorney as soon as possible since these product liability claims have time limits.

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