Strict Liability for Defective Products in Washington
This is a basic guide to the legal area of "Strict Liability".
IntroductionUsually, when we think of a personal injury case, we think of suing for negligence or intentional torts. There is another category called "strict liability".
HistoryThe modern doctrine of "strict liability" derives from an old British case called Fletcher v. Rylands in which the defendant's reservoir flooded mine shafts on the plaintiff's adjoining land.
Applicability"Strict liability" is applied to situations like dog bite cases, pyrotechnics, etc. See Beeler v. Hickman, 50 Wn. App. 746, 750-51, 750 P.2d 1282 (1988); Klein v. Pyrodyne Corp., 117 Wn.2d 1, 810 P.2d 917 (1991). Strict liability does not require a showing of a defendant's duty, breach of duty, or negligence. If a defendant owned a dog that bit somebody or if a defendant was igniting fireworks and somebody got injured, then strict liability requires the defendants to pay for the injuries.
Perhaps most importantly, product liability in Washington State has a standard of Strict Liability.
Product liabilityIn 1969, the Washington State Supreme Court did not hesitate to adopt Restatement (Second) of Torts, Section 402A (1965) to impose strict liability upon product manufacturers. Ulmer v. Ford Motor Co., 75 Wn.2d 522, 532, 452 P.2d 729 (1969). In Seattle-First Nat'l Bank v. Tabert, 86 Wn.2d 145, 149, 542 P.2d 774 (1975) the court extended application to others within the chain of distribution. (See also Zanora v. Mobil Oil Corp., 104 Wn.2d 199, 704 P.2d 584 (1985) where propane gas was not adequately odorized and even though Mobil was not negligent, it was in the chain of distribution and was therefore subject to strict liability.)
The WPLAThe Washington legislature enacted the Washington Product Liability Act (WPLA) in 1981. RCW 7.72. Although some of the language of the WPLA was less than crystal clear, Washington courts soon affirmed that strict liability remained the standard for product liability cases. Falk v. Keene Corp., 113 Wn.2d 645, 782 P.2d 974 (1989). Soproni v. Polygon Apt. Partners, 137 Wn.2d 319, 971 P.2d 500 (1999). The distinguishing feature of strict liability for product liability cases is the consumer expectation test. RCW 7.72.030(3). Plaintiffs can prove products were "defective" (either by manufacturing defects, design defects, or defects of failure to properly warn) merely by showing the product was not reasonably safe in accordance with the expectations of the user.
Asbestos, Pharmaceuticals, and TobaccoThe asbestos cases, pharmaceutical cases, and tobacco cases have shown the law's willingness to diminish the requirement of proving individual causal responsibility.
In the asbestos case of Lockwood v. A C & S, 109 Wn.2d 235, 744 P.2d 605 (1987) the court ruled unequivocally that the foreseeability of harm is not an element of a strict liability claim. A supplier of asbestos-containing products may even be held strictly liable for injuries sustained by household family members of users of the products. Further, the Lockwood court said that asbestos plaintiffs in Washington may establish exposure to a defendant's product through circumstantial evidence. Lunsford v. Saberhagen Holdings, Inc., 125 Wn. App. 784, 106 P.3d 808 (2005). The Lunsford court expressed the view that a seller, by marketing his product for use and consumption, undertakes and assumes a special responsibility toward any member of the consuming public who may be injured by it; that reputable sellers will stand behind their goods; and that the proper persons to afford the costs of product related injuries are those who market the products. Part of the justification of strict liability is that defendants derived economic benefit from the sales. Macias v. Saberhagen Holdings, Inc., 175 Wn.2d 402, 282 P.3d 1069 (2012).
In Martin v. Abbott Labs., 102 Wn.2d 581, 689 P.2d 368 (1984) ( a pharmaceutical case) the court opined that when confronted with the problem of choosing who will bear the cost of injury (as between an innocent plaintiff and the defendants, who may have provided the product and contributed to the risk of injury to the public) courts have found the interests of justice and fundamental fairness demand that the latter should bear the cost of injury. The court fashioned a modified, alternate market-share liability rule that eliminated the necessity of proving individual causal responsibility. The Martin court elaborated on policy reasons in support of the liability-enhancing movement in the legal landscape by saying that as between the injured plaintiff and the possibly responsible company, the company is in a better position to absorb the cost of the injury - the company can either insure itself against liability, absorb the damage award, or pass the cost along to the consuming public as a cost of doing business. The Martin court concluded that it was better to have companies or consumers share the cost of the injury than to place the burden solely on the innocent plaintiff.
Wash. State Physicians Ins. Exch. & Ass'n v. Fisons Corp., 122 Wn.2d 299, 858 P.2d 1054 (1993) adopted much broader criteria for successor liability in defective products cases than was normal for mere business transaction cases.
Public PolicyA manufacturer found liable on a product liability claim may decide to accept damages awards as a cost of doing business and not alter its behavior in any way. Cipollone v. Liggett Group, Inc., 505 U.S. 504, 112 S.Ct. 2608, 120 L.Ed.2d 407 (1992)(J. Blackmun, dissenting at 505 US 536-7). Or, by contrast, it may choose to avoid future awards by improving its behavior towards safety considerations.
Dean Prosser aptly described the change in the law of product liability thus:
There is "a strong and growing tendency, where there is blame on neither side, to ask, in view of the exigencies of social justice, who can best bear the loss and hence to shift the loss by creating liability where there has been no fault."
W. Prosser, Torts, Section 75, at 494 (4th ed. 1971).
The Bylsma caseIn Bylsma v. Burger King Corp., 176 Wn.2d 555, 293 P.3d 1168 (2013) a Deputy Sheriff found phlegm in his hamburger. The design of the hamburger by the Burger King Corporation had not included phlegm. A cook in the restaurant had apparently added the phlegm to the burger upon seeing the Deputy Sheriff in the restaurant. The addition of the phlegm to the hamburger constituted a manufacturing defect because it deviated from the original design of the hamburger. It didn't matter that the Burger King Corporation did not foresee a cook expectorating on a hamburger. The plaintiff prevailed because the reasonable expectations of the consumer did not include phlegm on his hamburger. Circumstantial evidence was sufficient to hold the defendant strictly liable. The Bylsma court also ruled that damages under the WPLA can include emotional distress.
ConclusionSo, when people get hurt, the State of Washington can be tough on product manufacturers, and that is good because the injured people can get compensated for their damages.