Do you have a defective product or products liability case?
In 2004, John Pacheco, a job corps volunteer, woke in his dormitory in Anaconda, Montana with a headache. He got out of bed, vomited, and then passed out on his way to the bathroom. When he woke, he took a shower hoping it might help him feel better and then he passed out again.
John was airlifted, along with several other volunteers staying in his dorm, to the Wound Healing and Hyperbaric Medicine Center in Billings. It turns out that the exhaust pipe in his dormitory heating system allowed carbon monoxide to escape and fill the dormitory. The victims suffered serious injuries, including permanent brain damage.
Evidence presented at trial showed that Lennox Industries Inc. had manufactured the defective heating system and the volunteers were ultimately awarded $7.49 million in damages.
Types of product liability cases in Montana
Montana law recognizes the right of consumers to purchase products that are safe.
The 3 main categories of product liability cases are:
- Manufacturing defect claims
- Design defect claims
- Inadequate warning or instruction claims
Let’s take a look at each category so you can determine if you have a valid product liability claim.
Most product liability cases are based on manufacturing defects. A defectively manufactured product is one that—though properly designed—left the manufacturer in a condition other than the condition intended.
Let’s look at an example:
A drug company manufactures hundreds of blood pressure medications. During the manufacturing process, one batch of blood pressure medications becomes contaminated with a carcinogen. As a result, some of the patients who take the blood pressure medication develop cancer.
In this example, the product would have been safe if was manufactured correctly. However, because something went wrong during the manufacturing process, the product was defective when it reached the consumers — and therefore the manufacturer can be held liable for injuries or illness that happened as a result.
A product is defectively designed if it can be shown that the product failed to perform as safely as a reasonable person would expect, even when the product is used as intended (or at least in a manner that was reasonably foreseeable).
To put it another way, nothing went wrong in the manufacturing process, the product is simply inherently dangerous by design.
Let’s look at an example:
Ford designs a Ford Pinto with a fuel tank located just inches behind the rear axle. The design is intended to create more trunk space. However, the design results in fires whenever the Ford Pinto is rear-ended.
In the above example (based on a real case), the product is inherently dangerous even when manufactured according to the design specifics.
Failure to warn
Manufacturers have a duty to warn users of the dangers inherent in their products. For example, if a toy represents a choking hazard, the box must contain a warning to parents and perhaps an age restriction.
Do manufacturers have to warn about every conceivable danger? No.
Manufacturers are only responsible for warning users about:
- Dangers that can occur when the product is used as intended
- Dangers that can occur when the product is used in a way that can be reasonably anticipated
In addition, manufacturers are required to provide adequate operating instructions and warn users of the possible consequences of failing to follow those instructions.
How to establish a product liability claim
Let’s take a quick look at both theories.
In a product liability case based on negligence, the plaintiff must prove that:
- The defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of reasonable care (manufacturers owe a duty of care to all potential users of their products),
- The defendant breached the duty of reasonable care owed to the plaintiff, and
- The defendant’s breach was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.
In a product liability case based on strict liability, the plaintiff doesn’t need to prove that the defendant breached any sort of duty. Rather, the plaintiff only needs to show that:
- A product was sold in an “unreasonably dangerous” condition,
- The unreasonably dangerous condition existed at the time the product left the defendant’s control, and
- The dangerous condition was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.
Timeline for filing a product liability claim
In Montana, a product liability claim must be filed within 3 years of the date of injury (or within 3 years from the date the injury is discovered).
Defenses to a product liability claim
A defendant has 2 primary defenses to a product liability claim in Montana:
- Misuse of a product
- Assumption of the risk
Both defenses are based on the idea that the consumer had the opportunity to avoid the risk of injury.
Let’s take a closer look.
Misuse of product
To assert the defense of misuse of a product, a defendant must establish 3 elements:
- The injured party unreasonably misused the product
- The misuse was not reasonably foreseeable by the manufacturer (not just that it was abnormal or not intended)
- The misuse caused the injury
For example, if you damage your skin by applying nail polish remover on your face to repel bugs, the nail polish company will argue that you misused the nail polish remover. The company will also argue that there was no way they could have foreseen that you would use nail polish remover as a bug spray.
This is, of course, an extreme example. Things get more complicated when the misuse of the product is arguably foreseeable, as shown in the case below.
|Lutz v. National Crane Corp., Supreme Court of Montana (1994)
|Facts. In Lutz v. National Crane Corp., the plaintiff’s husband died from injuries sustained while working with a crane. Lutz was retrieving a load of pipes that had spilled off of a semi-trailer. The pipes had rolled underneath a set of overhead power lines.
Lutz positioned the crane above the pipes so that the cable could drag the pipes up the road to a spot where he could lift them safely. The crane nevertheless came into contact with a power line and Lutz was fatally electrocuted.
Lutz’s estate filed a product liability claim against the manufacturer of the crane alleging that the crane was defectively designed and unreasonably dangerous because it failed to have insulation. The manufacturer raised the defense of misuse, arguing that Lutz used the crane improperly by dragging the load (i.e. sideloading).
Conclusion. The court found that although Lutz’s use of the crane was improper it was reasonably foreseeable. Not only is sideloading common (though frowned upon), the manufacturer actually admitted during trial that sideloading was a foreseeable use of the crane.
Assumption of the risk
In order to establish an assumption of the risk, the defendant must show:
- The consumer discovered the defect or the defect was open and obvious, and
- Even though the consumer knew about the defect or the defect was open and obvious, the plaintiff unreasonably made use of the product.
For example, let’s say you receive a new water heater with a visibly cracked exhaust pipe. You know that exhaust gases can seep through the crack and into your home. Nevertheless, you remain in the home and use the defective water heater anyway. In this case, the manufacturer might argue that you were aware of the defect and failed to take reasonable action to prevent harm.
Product liability damages
In Montana, a plaintiff in a product liability lawsuit can recover economic damages and non-economic damages.
Economic damages are intended to compensate you for the monetary losses associated with your injury and include:
- Medical expenses
- Lost income due to missing work
- Loss of property or property damage
- Any other out-of-pocket expenses you incurred due to your injury
Economic damages are fairly objective and easy to calculate. The hardest (and most important) part is keeping track of your expenses. This means saving all of your medical bills and receipts.
Non-economic damages are designed to compensate you for the non-monetary consequences of your injury. Common examples include:
Non-economic damages are more difficult to prove. As with economic damages, keeping good records can help.
Finally, you may be able to recover punitive damages if you can show that the defendant acted with fraud or actual malice. Learn more about recovering punitive damages in a product liability lawsuit.
If you have more questions about whether or not you have a legitimate product liability case, consult an experienced Montana injury lawyer near you for expert legal advice.
- Guide to Product Liability Claims in Montana
Need a lawyer?
A personal injury lawyer helps individuals who have sustained injuries in accidents to recover financial compensation. These funds are often needed to pay for medical treatment, make up for lost wages and provide compensation for injuries suffered. Sometimes a case that seems simple at first may become more complicated. In these cases, consider hiring an experienced personal injury lawyer. Read more