Who is liable for a defective product?

Anyone involved in the chain of distribution is liable to the consumer for injury caused by a defective product.

This week’s question comes from Robert W. in Pinole, who writes:

Q: “I bought a bike recently and, when I was using it, the front fork cracked, broke and sent me over the handlebars. I landed on my head and shoulder. Thankfully, I was wearing a helmet. My head is OK, but I broke my shoulder. My research shows the bike frame was probably made in China. I bought the bike at a local store, not a chain, and they said they would refund my money or give me a replacement frame. When I asked if they would pay my medical bills, they told me they are not responsible and that I need to go after the manufacturer in China. How do I do that?”

A: Robert, what you describe is a classic case of a defective product. California has a well-developed body of law designed to deal with defective products. A “product” can be anything from bottled water and food to cars, motorhomes and planes.

A product is not defective simply because someone is injured while using it, though misuse is one defense available to a defendant in a product defect case: If you were doing jumps on a road bike, you probably misused the product.

Product defect law breaks down into three categories: design defect, manufacturing defect and failure to warn — or, in some instances, all three. What you present may be a design defect, manufacturing defect or both.

My firm has handled many such cases including defective breaks, pedals, wheels, spokes, front fork separations and defective tires. Defects in bicycles can lead to personal injury and, unfortunately, death. While I am sorry to hear that you were injured, I am grateful that you did not suffer brain damage or worse (thanks to your helmet).

There is an aspect of liability called “strict product liability,” which says a manufacturer is liable if, when the product left the particular manufacturers control, it differed from the manufacturer’s intended result or from apparently identical products of the same manufacturer, and if the product was used in a manner reasonably foreseeable by the defendant but nonetheless caused a person injury. A well-known example involves a bottle of coke that exploded as a consumer was trying to open it. 

A plaintiff’s burden in a manufacturing defect case is to demonstrate there was a flaw in the manufacturing process. To prevail, a plaintiff must show the product was in the same condition as when it left the manufacturer. If the product has been altered in such a way that it is materially different than when it left the manufacturer, either from misuse or some material modification, then liability might be precluded against the manufacturer. In your case, there may be a defect in the assembly, a metallurgical defect or a lamination defect that may have caused the failure.

A perfectly manufactured product may still be defective because of a flaw in its design. Again, the product must be materially the same at the time of failure as when it left the manufacturer. This type of defect may exist if there is an engineering flaw that causes failure based on stress loads, a failure to incorporate a safety device or other similar reasons. Design defect liability may be established under two alternative tests, commonly known as the “consumer expectation” and “risk-benefit” tests.

A product is defective in design if it failed to perform as safely as an ordinary consumer would expect (or have a right to expect) when using the product in an intended or reasonably foreseeable manner. The “risk-benefit” test is one that analyzes whether the inherent dangers involving the use of a product outweigh its benefits. A design defect may exist because, considering relevant factors judged in hindsight, the risk of danger inherent in the challenged design outweighs the benefit of the design. Some of the factors considered in such an analysis include the gravity of the danger imposed by the design, the likelihood that such danger would cause injury, the mechanical feasibility of a safer alternative design, the financial cost of an improved design and the adverse consequences to the product and consumers that would result from an alternative design. A manufacturer, while obligated to consider “foreseeable misuse,” is not required to make a product foolproof. For example, no liability was found to exist when a consumer picked up a lawnmower in an attempt to trim a hedge thereby losing some fingers.

Recovery on a theory of negligent design involves balancing the likelihood and gravity of potential harm from a given design against the burden of the measures required to avoid the harm. If the likelihood and gravity of harm outweigh the design’s benefit, the manufacturer may be found negligent for having placed the product on the market regardless of any product warnings.

Finally, the bike shop is wrong: A strong public policy exists mandating that anyone involved in the “chain of distribution” is liable to the consumer for injury caused by a defective product. This is because they are profiting off the product and are in a better position to insure against injury by purchasing insurance or by increasing the price to take into consideration the costs of potential injuries. If the costs of purchasing insurance, paying claims or paying damages through a lawsuit makes the product too expensive for the consumer’s tastes, then, by market forces, it will fail and be removed from the marketplace.

I suggest you don’t alter the bike, don’t have it fixed or throw out any of the parts and get it to a trial lawyer who can have the proper experts examine it to see if you have a case.

Christopher B. Dolan is owner of the Dolan Law Firm. Email questions to help@dolanlawfirm.com.

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