Design Defect Liability: In Search of a Standard of Responsibility

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Responsibility for the consequences of our own actions and occasionally for the actions of others seems to have been largely forgotten as a foundation for governing conduct. This Article advocates re-emphasizing responsibility in one important area, that of manufacturer liability for product design. To that end, the author proposes the highest standard of conduct by which to judge product manufacturers' design decisions. The standard proposed in this Article is higher than merely reasonable, prudent conduct and is not the allegedly "strict" liability frequently imposed. The standard this Article proposes reflects an emphasis on responsible conduct in light of the special relationship of trust that exists between manufacturers and their customers.

This Article proposes a standard of liability based on the high responsibility product manufacturers have to the less informed and necessarily trusting public. Part I supports this standard by identifying the general goals of product liability law. Part II explores the history of how we came to a strict liability system to fulfill those goals. Part III defines the current system of imposing liability for product design defects and shows that this system is not one of strict liability as was originally intended, but is rather one of negligence which focuses on the manufacturer's conduct in design decisions. Once it becomes evident that design defect liability is properly based on negligence, a reassessment of the standard of conduct to be imposed on product manufacturers is in order.

To establish the proper standard, Part IV elaborates on the foundation of product manufacturer responsibility and compares the relationship between product manufacturers and their customers to that which exists between other categories of responsible actors and their victims where, because of the relationship, the responsible actor is held to the highest standard of care possible. Common carriers, bailors for hire, innkeepers, and commercial providers of dangerous services, among others, are generally required to exercise the highest degree of care possible in their conduct. Because of the element of control by one actor over the activity, the inherent trust in that control by other participants in the activity, the dangerousness of the activity, and the high probability of serious harm to unsuspecting persons when responsible care is not exercised, this Article analyzes the relationships between common carriers and passengers, and between commercial providers of dangerous services and the public in an effort to discover what sets these relationships apart from others where conduct is judged simply by the standard of the "reasonable and prudent person."

The primary factor that distinguishes these relationships is trust. This trust brings with it a duty to behave not only reasonably but responsibly. Responsible conduct reflects an obligation to behave in a way that takes into account the interests of a category of other participants who are not only less knowledgeable, but who are incapable of becoming knowledgeable about the risks involved in an activity. The relationships identified above involve these participants-the passenger of the carrier and the user of, or member of the public affected by, the dangerous commercial service. So stands the consumer of a product to the manufacturer of that product. A relationship exists which was cultivated by the manufacturer, encouraged by necessity, marketing and advertising, and culminated in the use by the consumer of the manufacturer's product. The above relationships are unique because of the interdependence of the actors-the product manufacturer is dependent on the consuming public for its existence and the consumer relies on the sophistication of the manufacturer to make its products in such a way that they will not be unduly harmful. Because of that relationship, the highest standard of care should be required. This standard is responsible conduct. Part IV contains an explanation of how this high standard of care will apply, suggests a jury instruction to implement the standard, and provides examples of how the standard will affect a variety of cases.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)1217-1284
JournalWayne Law Review
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jan 1 1993


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