Product Liability For Defective Design

Sellers or distributors of products can be liable under various products liability theories for personal injury or wrongful death.  One main category of products liability is “defective design.”  Under a defective design theory, a defendant can be liable for putting a product on the market that has one or more design flaws.

To succeed on a theory of defective design, a plaintiff has to prove that the product was defective at the time it left the defendant’s control.  A plaintiff also has to establish that a “reasonable alternative safer design” could have been practically adopted at the time of the product’s sale or distribution that would have reduced or avoided the foreseeable risks of harm posed by the product.  Additionally, the plaintiff must show that the omission of the alternative design rendered the product not reasonably safe and that the alternative design would have reduced or prevented the plaintiff’s harm.

As you can imagine, defective design cases are hotly contested on the issue of reasonable alternative design.  A defective design lawsuit fails without proof of an alternative design.  That proof usually comes through qualified experts, like engineers.

In assessing whether an alternative safer design existed, the Iowa Supreme Court has instructed litigants to consider many factors, including the magnitude and probability of the foreseeable risks of harm; the instructions and warnings accompanying the product; consumer expectations about product performance and the dangers attendant to use of the product, including expectations arising from product portrayal and marketing; whether the risk presented by the product is open and obvious to, or generally known by, foreseeable users; the technological feasibility and practicality of the alternative design; whether the alternative design could be implemented at a reasonable cost; the relative advantages and disadvantages of the product as designed and as it alternatively could have been designed; the likely effects of the alternative design on product longevity, maintenance, repair, aesthetics, and on the efficiency and utility of the product; the range of consumer choice among similar products, with and without the alternative design; the overall safety of the product with and without the alternative design and whether the alternative design would introduce other dangers of equal or greater magnitude; and custom and practice in the industry and how the defendant’s design compares with other competing products in actual use.


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