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Strict liability and products liability are foundational theories of legal liability relied on by personal injury lawyers when seeking justice for clients who have suffered at the hands of third parties. These two theories are related and share similarities—but they are not identical.
In contrast to intentional torts and negligence, the legal theory of strict liability does not rely on the intent of a defendant or how their actions compare to what a reasonable person might have done. Instead, strict liability is imposed on a defendant solely based on the nature of their alleged conduct.
There are three kinds of conduct that give rise to strict liability. The first is the possession of animals known to be harmful. For example, if a property owner keeps on their property, an aggressive dog that has previously attacked, and it attacks a visitor, the property owner could be strictly liable for the visitor’s injuries regardless of the precautions taken to prevent an attack.
The second type of conduct that gives rise to strict liability is engaging in abnormally dangerous activities. Typically, an abnormally dangerous activity (1) is not commonly undertaken in a community or under certain circumstances, (2) creates foreseeable and significant potential harm to people or property and (3) carries with it a high degree of risk of harm that cannot be abated through the exercise of reasonable care. Examples of abnormally dangerous activities might include storing hazardous waste in a residential area and using dynamite near a densely populated part of town.
The third kind of conduct that gives rise to strict liability is products liability. Products liability is the theory of legal liability under which the manufacturer or seller of a defective product is held liable for injuries to a consumer caused by that product’s use. In a products liability case, any or all parties that are involved in a product’s chain of distribution—including the manufacturer, distributor and the retailer that sold the product to the consumer—can be liable for a consumer’s injuries.
There is no federal products liability law. Therefore, the laws of products liability vary from state to state. Although the United States Department of Commerce published the Model Uniform Products Liability Act (MUPLA) in 1979 to create uniform U.S. products liability law, it has not been widely adopted. The American Law Institute’s Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability, for example, does not cite often to the MUPLA.
In most states, products liability claims are based on the theory of strict liability. In states where strict liability is not the theory of liability, the theory falls to negligence, or breach of warranty of fitness.
In states where strict liability is the theory of liability, manufacturers and sellers are generally liable for injuries to people caused by the goods they manufacture or sell regardless of their intent or the amount of reasonable care they exercise. To prevail in a strict liability products liability case, a plaintiff must show by the preponderance of the evidence that:
A product is “unreasonably dangerous” to a consumer’s health and safety if it is dangerous beyond an ordinary consumer’s expectation or the manufacturer did not produce a less dangerous alternative that was economically feasible. Product defects can injure consumers in countless ways, but there are only three types of defects commonly recognized as giving rise to a products liability claim:
Because strict liability claims and products liability claims in strict liability jurisdictions do not rest on the intent of the defendant, intent-based defenses will be of no help. But that does not mean they are without potent defenses. In strict liability and products liability cases, defendants may be able to prevail on defenses such as:
Additionally, a defendant in a products liability case that faces allegations of a design defect in their product may have additional defenses at their disposal through the application of two tests:
As discussed, strict liability and products liability are indeed distinct legal theories—with plenty of overlap. Volumes of legal precedent exists in this area and understanding the interplay between the two theories should bring clarity to personal injury lawyers considering which to assert in a client matter.