Current laws regarding product liability frustrate the engineering fraternity. According to designers, our courts fail to resolve product litigation in a predictable, consistent manner. Designers seek some basic criteria or standard against which to measure the legal ramifications of their conduct.
How can you, the designer, meet all that the law requires of you? What are your responsibilities as a product designer? We have outlined the designer's legal responsibilities and examined in detail the various obligations the courts impose on engineers. None are novel, but an overview may be useful as a reference. Consider and document the following design principles to successfully defend your design in court.
Concern for safety. our design should clearly reflect that you were concerned about user safety. Juries have little sympathy for manufacturers who do not show such concern.
Failing to meet standards is invariably fatal to the defense of a product liability case. Conversely, merely meeting a standard does little to help the case's defense. Designers are expected to meet all applicable standards. Think about your safety margins.
Establish clearly defined criteria that support your decisions to fulfill safety margins and material specifications.
Documentation of analysis and tests are crucial, since analysis and sufficient testing are often key issues for the jury. Documentation written long before the accident is much more credible evidence than later verbal testimony.
You must demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of both the product's limits and maximum capabilities. Document the life of the product or accelerated testing. Since it is no longer enough to argue that the accident was "unanticipated," the engineering fundamentals of failure and hazard analysis are equally important in the lab and in court.
Worst-case analysis is particularly useful in a products litigation defense. Consider also "fail-safe" design. While a product need not be fail-safe, legally, reasonably foreseeable uses (and misuses) must be anticipated.
Think about the hazards of the use or misuse of the product. Once you have anticipated foreseeable product uses/misuses and resulting injuries, you must heed the potential injury's magnitude. For instance, a product-related death may result in criminal charges against corporate personnel.
Recently, the plaintiff's bar has focused on warnings and instructions in cases against manufacturers. Clear, comprehensive, adequate warnings are a must for any product with attending risks which are not obvious to the intended user. It is important to demonstrate to the jury also that the product and its components left the manufacturer in a documented, defect-free functional condition through inspection and quality control.
Evaluation by independent laboratory. Good product design corroborated by an "objective" third-party tends to remove some of the jury's natural bias against the manufacturer's in-house testing and opinions. Empirical testing and assessment of the field result is one of the best measures of a product in the lab and courtroom. Document risk-utility considerations at the outset of product development and intermittently afterwards as your company receives incident reports.
Such are your responsibilities should the product become the subject of litigation.
Q A a designer, should I document the design criteria and all steps undertaken during product design and development by writing them down? Yes. Written documentation of your efforts is crucial in the defense of products litigation. Frequently, products litigation occurs years after your work is complete. It is particularly important to document all safety considerations and any reasons why choices were made which might later be questioned in a courtroom.
Q Why isn't my testimony as the product designer the key at a trial, since I know my product best? Good question. The jurors are the final judges of the credibility of all witnesses and their testimony. Thus the jurors may decide that the company representative is biased and give equal or greater consideration to the testimony of the so-called "independent experts."
Q Why are warnings part of the design criteria? Although the product may be adequately designed, it may present non-obvious dangers or hazards to a user. Our courts have held that failure to warn of these dangers may be a breach of the designer's duty.
Q Am I personally responsible for the design of my company? Theoretically, yes. However, rarely is an individual corporate representative sued. When one individual in the company is singled out in a lawsuit, it is usually because that person exercised full decision-making and control of the product. More importantly, companies, not individuals, have sufficient funds to satisfy large personal-injury judgements.