Product liability law holds manufacturers, distributors, suppliers, and retailers who supply tangible products to the public responsible and liable for injuries they cause. Product liability for design defects occurs where the product design is inherently defective and dangerous no matter how carefully produced or manufactured. Defective design claims are not against some error or negligence in the manufacturing process but against the process itself as inherently dangerous regardless of production perfectly in accord with manufacturing specifications. An example of a design defect is a car with a tendency to flip over while turning a corner or an electric blanket that can electrocute users who set it for maximum heat. But the defective design must be the actual cause of the injury. The driver of a flip-prone car that crashes into another vehicle has a design defect claim only if the car crashes because it flips over while turning.
The American Law Institute Third Restatement of the Law of Torts says a design defect occurs “when the foreseeable risks of harm posed by the product could have been reduced or avoided by the adoption of a reasonable alternative design by the seller or other distributor, or a predecessor in the commercial chain of distribution, and the omission of the alternative design renders the product not reasonably safe.”
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Courts resolve design defect cases by cost-benefit analyses provided by the Third Restatement. The plaintiff must identify an alternate design that could make a product safer to recover damages for a design defect. If the plaintiff demonstrates that a practicable or feasible alternative to the manufacturer’s design could prevent the harm, the court then decides whether the plaintiff’s alternative would be cost-efficient.
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As an example, a metal fan has a guard cover with openings three-quarters of an inch wide. The plaintiff’s hand slips through the guard openings, and the fan blades injure him. The plaintiff may argue a design defect theory that a fan with guard openings no more than a half-inch wide would not have injured his hand.
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