Boom year for products liability could signal changes ahead

In 2014, there was a substantial spike in the number of large jury verdicts in civil lawsuits over injuries and deaths caused by dangerous or defective products. The trend could signal a larger shift toward increased accountability in a wide range of industries ranging from vehicle manufacturing to pharmaceuticals and even children’s toys.

Products liability lawsuits arise when people are hurt or killed by unsafe products. In recent years, many high-profile defective product lawsuits have centered on vehicle defects such as faulty airbags, ignition switches and accelerators. However, these lawsuits can also arise from products of any type, including household furnishings, tools, electronics and even food products.

Until 2014, the Insurance Journal reported, about a decade had passed since a product liability case had resulted in a billion-dollar verdict in the United States. Last year, however, juries returned verdicts above the billion-dollar mark in not one but two separate cases involving dangerous products.

One of the cases involved a claim filed against a tobacco company by the family of a lifelong smoker who died of lung cancer in 1996 at the age of 36. The other was filed by a man who claimed that he developed cancer as a result of a medication he had taken. Both lawsuits alleged that the companies failed to inform consumers about the risks associated with using their products.

Products liability basics

Companies that sell or manufacture products owe a legal duty of care to consumers to make sure that their products are safe for use. If a product is designed or manufactured in such a way that it poses an unreasonable risk of injury or illness, they can be liable to anyone who is harmed as a result of that risk. The same is true for injuries and illnesses that occur because a potentially dangerous product is not accompanied by adequate instructions or warnings.

When someone is harmed by a defective or unsafe product, a products liability lawsuit provides the injured person and his or her family members with the opportunity to recover some of the costs resulting from the injury. This may include financial compensation for any necessary medical and rehabilitative expenses, as well as for lost income and other damages depending on the individual circumstances of the case.

Sending a message with punitive damages

In some cases, including last year’s billion-dollar verdicts, another type of monetary award known as punitive damages may also be available. Unlike other damages, which are meant to compensate the injured party and restore his or her financial circumstances to what they would have been without the injury, punitive damages go above and beyond mere compensation and are designed to punish the at-fault party for particularly reckless or fraudulent conduct.

Not only are punitive damages designed to punish the specific conduct involved in a particular case, but they are also meant to discourage similar conduct in the future by the same party or others. Last year’s big-ticket verdicts sent a powerful message to companies that corporate wrongdoing is unacceptable when it puts people’s lives in danger. Some commentators predict that impact of these verdicts could be especially pronounced in the automotive industry, where there have been widespread vehicle recalls and alleged cover-ups in recent years.

Get answers to your questions

For more information about your legal rights and options if you or a loved one has been hurt by a defective product in Pennsylvania, contact the personal injury lawyers at Berger and Green to set up a free consultation.