The law develops. What seemed fitting in 1964 when the Restatement (Second) announced the state of the common-law rules for strict liability in Section 402A seemed, by 1997, not to be tracking common law entirely closely. The American Law Institute came out with the Restatement (Third) in that year. Restatement changes some things. Most notably it abolishes the “unreasonably dangerous” test and substitutes a “risk-utility test.” That is, a product is not defective unless its riskiness outweighs its utility. More important, the Restatement (Third), Section 2, now requires the plaintiff to provide a reasonable alternative design to the product in question. In advancing a reasonable alternative design, the plaintiff is not required to offer a prototype product. The plaintiff must only show that the proposed alternative design exists and is superior to the product in question. The Restatement (Third) also makes it more difficult for plaintiffs to sue drug companies successfully. One legal scholar commented as follows on the Restatement (Third):
The provisions of the Third Restatement, if implemented by the courts, will establish a degree of fairness in the products liability arena. If courts adopt the Third Restatement’s elimination of the “consumer expectations test,” this change alone will strip juries of the ability to render decisions based on potentially subjective, capricious and unscientific opinions that a particular product design is unduly dangerous based on its performance in a single incident. More important, plaintiffs will be required to propose a reasonable alternative design to the product in question. Such a requirement will force plaintiffs to prove that a better product design exists other than in the unproven and untested domain of their experts’ imaginations. 1
Of course some people put more faith in juries than is evident here. The new Restatement has been adopted by a few jurisdictions and some cases the adopting jurisdictions incorporate some of its ideas, but courts appear reluctant to abandon familiar precedent.
Because the doctrines of breach of warranty and negligence did not provide adequate relief to those suffering damages or injuries in products-liability cases, beginning in the 1960s courts developed a new tort theory: strict products liability, restated in the Second Restatement, section 402A. Basically the doctrine says that if goods sold are unreasonably dangerous or defective, the merchant-seller will be liable for the immediate property loss and personal injuries caused thereby. But there remain obstacles to recovery even under this expanded concept of liability: disclaimers of liability have not completely been dismissed, the plaintiff’s conduct or changes to the goods may limit recovery, and—with some exceptions—the remedies available are limited to personal injury (and damage to the goods themselves); economic loss is not recoverable. Almost forty years of experience with the Second Restatement’s section on strict liability has seen changes in the law, and the Third Restatement introduces those, but it has not been widely accepted yet.
- What was perceived to be inadequate about warranty and negligence theories that necessitated the development of strict liability?
- Briefly describe the doctrine.
- What defects in goods render their sellers strictly liable?
- Who counts as a liable seller?
- What obstacles does a plaintiff have to overcome here, and what limitations are there to recovery?
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