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Historic Product Liability Cases

You may have some recall of a famous product liability claim that was brought against Ford Motor Company many years ago relating to their Pinto automobile. Ford made an engineering decision to place the gas tank on the Pinto in the rear of the vehicle even though they knew that the placement of the gas tank in that location would result in serious injury to the occupants if the vehicle was involved in a rear end collision.

Ford Pinto Product Defect

Documentation was produced during that litigation that established 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 they felt that the overall financial benefit would weigh in their favor even though they recognized that they would have to pay several million dollars in claims as a result of injuries. The jury in that case returned a very substantial award against Ford Motor Company for compensatory damages for the injuries suffered by the plaintiff in that case and also awarded punitive damages to punish Ford for it wrongful conduct in not taking the vehicle off the road or warning the public of the dangers associated with that vehicle.

McDonalds Product Claim

Another fairly well known product liability case that has received a good deal of press coverage involved a McDonald’s restaurant. In that case, an elderly woman purchased a cup of coffee from a drive-in window at McDonald’s and then 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 being 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 for simply 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 a 180 to 190 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. McDonalds, however, refused to reduce the temperature of its coffee because it felt that 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 six percent of her body. The state where that case was tried was a comparative negligence state and as such the jury having found the plaintiff partially negligent in terms of how she carried the coffee reduced her verdict by that proportion which was due to her own negligence. The jury in addition to awarding a compensatory damage amount 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 $200,000.00 for compensatory damages and $2.7 million dollars in punitive damages. The punitive damage award was reduced by the court on a post trial motion to $480,000.00.

As a result of that verdict, McDonald’s reduced the temperature of its coffee. That case was a product liability case in that the theory of recovery asserted by the plaintiff was that McDonald’s was negligent in selling a product (coffee) that was defective (i.e., too hot).

Basis of Product Liability Claim

A product liability claim may be founded upon negligence principles but it may also rely on 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 although 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 in that case 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.

There are a number of reasons as to why a product may be defective. The product may have been improperly designed or the product may have a defect in it that occurred during the manufacturing process. Either of those may be a basis for a product liability claim.

The law considers any product which is unreasonably dangerous for its intended use to be defective.

Learn more about Brien Roche, D.C. and Northern Virginia’s leading product liability attorney.

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