What do I do if I have a problem with a product?

A product liability claim is one in which a person contends that a particular product is defective in some way and that defect has caused injury. You may recall a famous product liability claim that was brought against Ford Motor Company many years ago to its Pinto automobiles. Ford made an engineering decision to place the gas tank on the Pinto in the rear of the vehicle, even though it knew that placing the gas tank in this location could result in serious injury to the occupants if the vehicle was involved in a rear-end collision.

Documentation was produced during litigation that Ford knew or should have known of that risk, yet made a conscious decision to continue to keep those vehicles on the road because it felt the overall financial benefit would weigh in its favor, even if it had to pay several million dollars in claims as a result of injuries.

The jury in one of those cases returned a very substantial award against Ford Motor Company for compensatory damages for the injuries suffered by the plaintiff. The jury also awarded substantial punitive damages to punish Ford for its wrongful conduct in not taking the vehicles off the road or warning the of dangers associated with that vehicle.

Another fairly well known product liability case involved a McDonald's restaurant. In that case, an elderly woman purchased a cup of coffee from a drive-in window at McDonald's, She apparently placed that cup of coffee between her legs and subsequently spilled the coffee, The case received a good deal of attention because it was touted by the insurance industry as an example of a runaway jury verdict. In fact, the insurance indus­try failed to disclose to the public that in that particular case the plaintiff had made an attempt to settle the case simply for her medical bills, which were substantial because she was hospital­ized for over a week, McDonald's, however, refused to entertain any reasonable settlement offers.

The evidence that was presented at trial was that McDonald's had been warned on many occasions that their coffee was approximately twenty degrees hotter than what was recom­mended by the local health department and was so hot that it could cause third degree burns, In fact, the coffee served by McDonald's was not just hot (135 to 140 degrees), but at 180 to 190 degrees was able to cook through all layers of skin within seven seconds, McDonald's admitted that its coffee was 40 to 50 degrees hotter than is fit for human consumption and knew that more than seven hundred people, including babies, had been burned by its coffee, McDonald's, however, refused to reduce the temperature of its coffee because it felt it sold more coffee at that level than it would at a lesser temperature.

The plaintiff in this case was an elderly woman who suffered third degree burns over 6% of her body.

In addition to awarding a compensatory damage amount, the jury also awarded punitive damages against McDonald's equal to its gross receipts of two days of coffee sales in order to teach it a lesson, The actual verdict in that case was $200,000 for compensatory damages and million in punitive damages. The punitive damage award was reduced by the court on a post-­trial motion to $480,000. As a result of that verdict, McDonald's reduced the temperature of its coffee.

A product liability claim may be founded upon negligence principles, but it may also raise a legal theory known as breach of warranty. Within the sale of a product there is either an express or implied warranty that the product is reasonably fit for the purpose for which it is sold. If it turns out that the product is not reasonably fit for that purpose, then that may constitute a breach of warranty and may give rise to a claim for damages if someone is injured as a result of that breach of warranty. Breach of warranty claims technically are contract claims, but they may be asserted as part of a product liability lawsuit.

Normally, in a product liability claim, the plaintiff will need to present some expert testimony as to what the defect is in the product. For instance, in the Ford Pinto case, the plaintiff had to present expert testimony from engineers to establish that the placement of the gas tank in the rear of the vehicle was danger­ous and was not good engineering.

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