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The Chinese government has recently taken some radical steps to shore up the reputation of its exports, including the execution of its chief food and drug regulator and the shutting down of three companies linked to putting poisonous ingredients in medicine and pet food.

The Chinese government’s actions may prompt some change there, but they do little for an injured consumer here, which led me to reflect on Wisconsin’s product liability laws. Fortunately, the law in Wisconsin holds the seller of a product, along with all the manufacturers, strictly liable to the consumer for injuries from product defects. The law was developed to attempt to ensure that consumers have somebody to hold accountable for their injuries. The seller of a product is usually in the best position to allocate the risk of injury or defect through its contracts with the manufacturers/suppliers and through insurance coverage.

For years, business and insurance lobbying groups have attempted to introduce legislation here to limit a manufacturer’s liability to consumers to the proportionate share of damages caused by each manufacturer’s negligence. At first blush the proposal sounds reasonable, but its practical effect is to severely limit any recourse injured consumers may have when they are injured by defective products. This is because products today are often produced abroad in countries that do not have legal systems in place to hold manufacturers accountable for injuries to consumers. Even products that are assembled here often consist of component parts manufactured abroad. By limiting liability to the negligence of each manufacturer, an injured consumer dealing with a product produced or assembled abroad would have to rein foreign companies into court to attempt to hold them responsible, a daunting if not impossible task when dealing with companies located in the developing world.

For example, I represented a client who was severely burnt by hot oil when the plastic handles of a stovetop pan melted off while cooking. The handles were made of a plastic that was not appropriate for cooking and had a lower melting point than the oil in the pan. The assembler of the pan was Canadian and had outsourced the production of the handles to a Chinese company. Under the limited liability scheme proposed by the lobbyists, my client would have had no recourse for her injuries because it would have been next to impossible to obtain or collect judgment against the Chinese company. It will be a long time before the legal systems of the countries of the developing world provide meaningful remedies to those injured by products exported from those countries. In the meantime, we need to strengthen, not weaken, our country’s produce liability laws.

For more information on this subject, please refer to our section on Defective and Dangerous Products.

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