Consumer Products Liability: A Multi-Faceted Approach

Consumer products are used every day by all types of individuals, so when an accident occurs, the question of who is liable for the causation is never a simple answer. CED has been involved in hundreds if not thousands of consumer product accidents — from jet skis to toaster ovens to bicycles to hair dryers. The question has always been “What caused this accident?” To solve this puzzle, particularly in consumer products, engineers must use a multi-faceted approach.

Product Defect – The first approach is to rule out or establish a potential product defect. Products can be defective in three ways: (1) operation does not meet product description; (2) defective materials are present and (3) inadequate warnings and/or safety guards.

The first step is to analyze whether the product meets the description for which it was advertised and described in the manuals provided with it. If a lawn mower is used under normal operating conditions (and all of the instructions from the manual are being followed) and it suddenly explodes is the product defective? To examine this, CED engineers would inspect the units that caused the accident and potentially subject exemplars or exact models to testing under the same or similar conditions.

The second area concerns defective materials used in the product. During the inspection and research of the accident, if engineers can pinpoint a potential component, CED will test the component from different fields such as electrical and material testing in our laboratory.

The third area that requires analysis is a potential codes or standards violation. Did the product follow the codes and standards established by governing bodies to protect consumers? This way the product itself can potentially be ruled out and CED can then gear the investigation towards the consumer/operator of the product.

Operator Misuse – After the product itself is examined, the engineer must then take into account human interaction with the product. Over the past several years, the role of human factors has become increasingly important — and widespread — in establishing causation of product liability claims. Questions explored include: how would a typical individual use the product given the instruction and operating manual? Was the product installed correctly? Did the plaintiff misuse or use the product in an unforeseen matter for which no warning could have prevented this accident? All of these questions will need to be answered by the engineer to determine causation.

Warnings & Safety Guards – The last area that needs to be analyzed is the establishment of proper warnings to the applications specified for the product and safety guards. Many hardware products are inherently hazardous due to the nature of their purpose; a saw must have a saw blade in order to cut materials. The question then becomes, was the injured made aware of potential hazards and how to properly use the product through sufficient warnings? Warnings that are either placed on the device in a visible location or in operating manuals need to thoroughly educate the consumer about the potential risks and hazards of using the product. Along with warnings, the manufacturer should also provide safety guards to minimize consumer accidents. If the saw blade is a hazard, the manufacturer should include a safety guard with every saw sold. If the injured removed the guard or neglected to install the guard, then the manufacturer is automatically absolved of any negligence claims.

Consumer product accident investigations are rarely simple and straightforward but rather an assessment of all of the above components to render a complete opinion. Attorneys, insurance companies and manufacturers have sometimes asked why it takes a trained engineer for a particular case rather than a professional who has spent years in the product field and the answer is simple – to render a complete and thorough picture. The last thing anyone needs following an accident is to hastily determine causation without a complete picture as the outcome could be disastrous.

CED Experts can assist you on your next case. For more information, contact one of our regional offices to speak with a case specialist.