Defective Product Liability Claims in Tennessee

Learn what to do if you're injured by a defective product in the Volunteer State

Product liability lawsuits (also called "defective product lawsuits") are more complicated because they can be based on negligence or strict liability. Learn the difference and find out what steps you can take to improve your chances of recovering damages.

A product liability lawsuit is a civil lawsuit filed against the manufacturer or seller of a defective or unreasonably dangerous product.

If you've been injured or suffered other harm because of a defective product, you may be able to recover damages.

Let's take a closer look at product liability lawsuits in Tennessee.

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How to prove a product liability claim in Tennessee

A product liability claim in Tennessee can be based on negligence or strict liability:


In order to recover damages in a product liability case based on negligence, you must establish that:

  • The product was in a "defective condition" at the time it left the control of the manufacturer or seller, and
  • The defective condition caused your injury.
Under Tennessee Code 29-28-102, a "defective condition" is a condition that renders the product "unsafe for normal or anticipatable handling and consumption."

There are 3 common types of defective conditions:

  1. Manufacturing defect. A defectively manufactured product is one that—though properly designed—left the manufacturer in a condition other than intended. An example would be a pharmaceutical drug that became tainted by another drug during the manufacturing process.
  2. Design defect. A defectively designed product is one that failed to perform as safely as a reasonable person would expect, even when used as intended (or at least in a manner that was reasonably foreseeable).
  3. Labeling defect (i.e. failure to warn). Manufacturers have a duty to warn users of the dangers that can be reasonably anticipated and that are inherent in their products. If the user is not properly warned, the product suffers from a labeling defect.

Strict liability

In order to recover damages in a product liability case based on strict liability, you must establish that:

  • The product was "unreasonably dangerous" at the time it left the control of the manufacturer or seller, and
  • The unreasonably dangerous condition caused your injury.
Under Tennessee Code 29-28,102, a product is "unreasonably dangerous" if it is "dangerous to an extent beyond that which would be contemplated by the ordinary consumer."

For example, a multivitamin that causes 1 out of every 100 users to suffer a heart attack would be unreasonably dangerous.

Proving that a product is defective or unreasonably dangerous requires evidence, which may include:

  • The defective product (or a similar product if the actual product is no longer available)
  • The product manufacturing guidelines
  • Relevant internal communications (such as emails between designers discussing the dangers associated with the product)
  • Incident reports
  • Medical records
  • Evidence of a recall
  • Testimony from designers, manufacturers, and others who can speak about the defective product
  • Testimony from witnesses who saw the injury occur

One of the first things your attorney will do if you're contemplating filing a product liability lawsuit is serve the defendant with a "preservation letter." A preservation letter is a written request that certain documents and other relevant evidence be preserved in anticipation of a lawsuit. If the defendant ignores the letter and destroys relevant evidence, the court can impose sanctions.

Who can be held liable?

In Tennessee, the following parties may generally be held liable in a product liability lawsuit:

  • Manufacturers. A manufacturer is an individual or entity that designs, fabricates, produces, compounds, processes, or assembles a product or its component parts before the sale to a customer.
  • Sellers. A seller is a person engaged in the business of selling a product, whether it's for resale or for use or consumption.

However, in Tennessee, a seller can only be held liable if at least 1 of the following things is true:

  • The seller exercised "substantial control" over the aspect of the design, testing, manufacturer, packaging, or labeling of the product that caused the harm;
  • The seller modified the product and this modification was a substantial factor in causing the harm;
  • The manufacturer of the product is not subject to service of process in the state of Tennessee (i.e., the manufacturer is located outside of Tennessee and does not do business inside of Tennessee);
  • The manufacturer has been judicially declared insolvent; or
  • The seller made an express statement to the consumer about the aspect of the product which caused the harm.

Who can file a product liability lawsuit?

In Tennessee, ANYONE who's injured by a defective or unreasonably dangerous product can file a product liability lawsuit. It's not necessary that the person purchased or even owned the product.

Common defenses to product liability lawsuits

There are several defenses that manufacturers and sellers may be able to assert in a product liability lawsuit. The most common defenses include:

  • Learned intermediary doctrine. The learned intermediary doctrine is a defense to a product liability claim based on a failure to warn. Under the learned intermediary doctrine, manufacturers of certain medical products can rely on physicians to transmit their warnings and instructions. If the physician fails to warn the patient, the physician, rather than the manufacturer, is liable.
  • Misuse of the product. The manufacturer or seller can argue that the harm was caused by misuse of the product. Remember, a manufacturer or seller can only be held liable for injuries caused by any foreseeable use of a product, so for this defense to work it must be shown that the misuse was unforeseeable (such as using nail polish remover to remove hair from your body).
  • Alteration of the product. The manufacturer or seller generally won't be held liable if the user altered the product in such a way that caused the injury. For example, if you added a motor to a bike causing it to travel at an unsafe speed, the bike manufacturer and seller won't be liable for any injuries that result.
  • Compliance with federal or state government standards. If the product complies with federal or state government standards, the manufacturer and seller have a "rebuttable presumption" that the product is not unreasonably dangerous. Plaintiffs can generally overcome this presumption fairly easily with expert testimony.
Real-life example: Jo Ann Whitehead worked for Magnavox, a home electronics company based in Knoxville. Jo Ann's job as an assembly-line worker involved using a glue machine to apply glue to component parts of television and stereo cabinets in preparation for further assembly.

In order to remove the excess glue from the cabinets being assembled, Magnavox supplied Jo Ann with a solvent called naphtha. Jo Ann was instructed to place a little bit of naphtha from a small container on a rag and wipe off any excess glue.

Jo Ann took home a quantity of naphtha in a Coke can and poured the naphtha into her washing machine. The naphtha vaporized and the resulting gas was ignited, causing an explosion. As a result of the explosion, Jo Ann was rendered totally and permanently disabled. She suffered severe brain damage and is no longer able to speak.

At trial, the defendant manufacturer successfully argued that using naphtha as a laundry detergent was an unforeseeable misuse of the product.

Statute of limitations: how long do I have to file a product liability lawsuit?

Tennessee law limits the amount of time you have to file a lawsuit based on a defective product. This time limitation is called the statute of limitations.

In most cases, you have 1 year from the date of your injury to file a product liability lawsuit in Tennessee.

There are, however, a few situations in which you might have more time. Under no circumstances, however, can you file your lawsuit more than 10 years after the product was first used.

Statute of limitations for Tennessee product liability claims
Physical injury from a defective product 1 year from the date of injury or from the date of discovery (but in no case more than 10 years from the first use of the product)
Property damage from a defective product 3 years from the date of injury or from the date of discovery (but in no case more than 10 years from the first use of the product)
If the defective product was a breast implant 25 years from the date of surgery or 4 years from the date the injury was discovered
If the product was defective due to asbestos 1 year from being diagnosed with mesothelioma or other similar condition

Defective product damages and caps

Tennessee law requires that you state the amount of damages you're seeking in your legal complaint.

In Tennessee you can recover the following damages:

  • Economic damages include the monetary losses caused by your injury, including medical expenses and lost wages.
  • Non-economic damages include the non-monetary losses caused by your injury, such as pain and suffering.
  • Punitive damages are intended to punish the defendant and are only available in cases where the defendant acted intentionally or recklessly.
Enjuris tip: Learn more about damages in Tennessee personal injury cases, including the formula attorneys and insurance companies may use to estimate your claim value.

Like most states, Tennessee caps the amount of some damages that you can recover. In Tennessee, the following damage caps apply to product liability lawsuits:

  • Punitive damages are capped at $500,000—or twice the amount of compensatory damages (economic + non-economic damages) awarded, whichever is greater.
  • Non-economic damages are capped at $750,000 unless the plaintiff suffered a catastrophic injury, in which case the cap is increased to $1 million.

What to do (and not do) after a defective product injury

If you suffered an injury due to a defective product, there are some steps you can take immediately following the injury to improve your chances of a successful lawsuit down the road:

  • Step 1. Get medical attention. Your health should be your top priority. Seeing a doctor helps ensure your injury doesn't get worse. Additionally, medical records will help you support a lawsuit down the road.
  • Step 2. Don't throw anything away. Product liability lawsuits are much harder to win if you're unable to produce the defective product as evidence. Avoid throwing away the product and any related items (such as torn or bloodied clothing).
  • Step 3. Don't discuss your injury on social media. Time and time again, plaintiffs post something on social media that comes back to haunt them. Avoid posting anything about your injury or the defective product on social media.
  • Step 4. Collect evidence. Take the time to gather any evidence that may help support your lawsuit. Were there witnesses? What about video footage? Be sure to take photographs of the defective product, any injuries or damages caused by the defective product, and the scene where the injury occurred.
  • Step 5. Talk to an attorney. The sooner your attorney can start building your case, the better your chances of success.

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