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Products Liability Glossary

Product Liability Glossary of Terms

Asbestos — A mineral fiber known to cause mesothelioma. Outlawed in the U.S. in the late 1970s, asbestos was, and can still be, found in hundreds of products and construction materials.

Class action — A type of civil lawsuit in which a large group of people bring a claim to court collectively. While class action may seem similar to mass tort (definition below), there are significant procedural differences. In a class action lawsuit a large group of plaintiffs, (the class) are represented by an individual who represents the entire “class.” This means that all members of the class are treated as one plaintiff, versus individually, which is the case with mass tort.

Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act — A watchdog consumer protection law enacted in 1972 that, among other things, allows the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to issue and enforce mandatory product standards and ban or recall unsafe products.

Contingency lawyer2 — Lawyers who typically do not charge an hourly rate or upfront attorney’s fee. Instead, their attorney’s fee is contingent on the outcome of the case – meaning they receive a set percentage of their client’s gross compensation after potentially settling or winning a case.

FDA — The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is a federal agency established to protect public health in the U.S. by monitoring the safety of new foods, drugs, and medical, biological, and other health-related products.

Mass tort — A type of civil lawsuit involving many plaintiffs against one or a few corporate defendants. While mass tort is similar to a class action (definition above) case in which a large group of people have been harmed by the same entity, there is a procedural difference. Each plaintiff in a mass tort is treated as an individual – not as a group, like in a class action case. For example, anything specific to an individual plaintiff, and how that person has been damaged by the actions of the defendant must be established.

Mesothelioma — A specific type of cancer, which is caused by inhaling asbestos fibers (a mineral fiber mined from the ground). Until asbestos usage was outlawed in the U.S. in the 1970s it was used in hundreds of everyday household products like drywall, tiles, glues, some clothing, and in manufacturing and shipping industries, particularly the military. Mesothelioma can take from 20 – 50 years to develop and some experts estimate that because of the prevalence of asbestos, even before the 1970s, more than 10 million people will likely die from mesothelioma by 2075.

Plaintiff — The person (or entity) who sues another person or entity (the defendant) in a civil action. For example if you bring suit against the Takata airbag manufacturer because your airbag unexpectedly deployed and injured you, you are the plaintiff. Takata would be the defendant.

Products liability — The responsibility of a manufacturer or vendor to compensate an individual for injuries caused by defective merchandise. Products liability cases may be brought if a product has a faulty design and/or was manufactured or marketed improperly, or the public was not sufficiently warned about the known dangers.

Punitive damages — Punitive damages are damages awarded with the intent to punish the person or company that caused the damage rather than compensate the injured victim. Punitive damages can be awarded in addition to compensatory damages. These damages may be awarded when the defendant’s actions were considered intentional, reckless, malicious, or fraudulent. For example, in the 2016 talcum powder verdict brought against Johnson & Johnson, the jury awarded the plaintiff, who died from ovarian cancer, full compensatory damages of $10 million. Yet the jury was so incensed over the company’s blatant and heinous disregard for the safety of the public regarding the potential to develop ovarian cancer, they awarded the plaintiff $10 million in punitive damages for every year she lived – 62 years. Her total award was $72 million ($10 million compensatory plus $62 million in punitive damages).

Recall — A recall is a request to return a product to its maker – whether a batch or an entire production run of that product, usually due to the discovery of safety issues. In the U.S., recalls may be voluntary or ordered by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Some of the more widely publicized recalls include the Takata airbags, GM ignition switches, and the VW diesel recalls.

Tort law — is a type of law that deals with a wrongful act or an infringement of a right leading to civil (not criminal) legal liability. For example, if you are injured by a harmful drug, and you pursue a case against the drug manufacturer, that case is tried under tort law.

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) — The federal body charged with protecting the U.S. public from unreasonable risks of serious injury or death from the thousands of consumer products under its jurisdiction. These products run the gamut from batteries, toys, car parts, clothing, furniture – just about anything outside the food, drug, and medical arena (which is the jurisdiction of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or FDA).

Wrongful death — An action brought against a person or entity by the survivors of someone who died as a result of the defendant’s negligence, an intentional act, or a defective product. Typically this is the immediate family members. The damages in a wrongful death suit are payable based on the harm the plaintiffs’ endured as a result of the death of their family member. Wrongful death damages can also include medical expenses incurred and potentially pain and suffering of the deceased from the time of injury until death, as well as financial support and loss of love and companionship. Wrongful death damages vary by state.