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Federal Reform

15 January, 2016 - 09:34

Piecemeal reform of products-liability law in each state has contributed to the basic lack of uniformity from state to state, giving it a crazy-quilt effect. In the nineteenth century, this might have made little difference, but today most manufacturers sell in the national market and are subjected to the varying requirements of the law in every state. For years there has been talk in and out of Congress of enacting a federal products-liability law that would include reforms adopted in many states, as discussed earlier. So far, these efforts have been without much success.

Congressional tort legislation is not the only possible federal action to cope with products-related injuries. In 1972, Congress created the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and gave the commission broad power to act to prevent unsafe consumer products. The CPSC can issue mandatory safety standards governing design, construction, contents, performance, packaging, and labeling of more than 10,000 consumer products. It can recall unsafe products, recover costs on behalf of injured consumers, prosecute those who violate standards, and require manufacturers to issue warnings on hazardous products. It also regulates four federal laws previously administered by other departments: the Flammable Fabrics Act, the Hazardous Substances Act, the Poison Prevention Packaging Act, and the Refrigerator Safety Act. In its early years, the CPSC issued standards for bicycles, power mowers, television sets, architectural glass, extension cords, book matches, pool slides, and space heaters. But the list of products is long, and the CPSC’s record is mixed: it has come under fire for being short on regulation and for taking too long to promulgate the relatively few safety standards it has issued in a decade.


Business advocates claim the American tort system—products-liability law included—is broken and corrupted by grasping plaintiffs’ lawyers; plaintiffs’ lawyers say businesses are greedy and careless and need to be smacked into recognition of its responsibilities to be more careful. The debate rages on, decade after decade. But there have been some reforms at the state level, and at the federal level the Consumer Product Safety Act sets out standards for safe products and requires recalls for defective ones. It is regularly castigated for (1) being officious and meddling or (2) being too timid.


  1.  Why is it so difficult to determine if there really is a “tort crisis” in the United States?
  2. What reforms have been made to state tort law?
  3. What federal legislation affects consumer safety?