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Products Liability Glossary

Product Liability Glossary of Terms

Asbestos — A mineral fiber known to cause mesothelioma. Largely banned (but not entirely banned) 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 lawyer — 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.

Defendant — The person (or entity) who is sued by another party (the plaintiff) in a civil action. For example, if you were to bring suit against Monsanto for a cancer you developed from using Roundup, you would be the plaintiff and Monsanto would be the defendant.

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. But does it?

Mass tort — A series of civil lawsuits 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 that is primarily caused by inhaling asbestos fibers (a mineral fiber mined from the ground). Until asbestos usage was largely (but not entirely) banned in the U.S. in the 1970s, it was used in hundreds of everyday household products like drywall, insulation, tiles, roofing shingles, siding, 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, more than 10 million people will likely die from mesothelioma by 2075.

Model Uniform Product Liability Act of 1979 — Federal law that sets forth uniform standards for State products liability cases. The law was created to simplify products liability torts, and it establishes the basic standards of responsibility to which manufacturers are to be held.

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 for three reasons: 1) if a product has a faulty design, 2) was manufactured improperly, or 3) the product was marketed improperly or 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 $1 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 notice 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 U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Some of the more widely publicized recalls include the Takata airbags, GM ignition switches, and the VW diesel recalls.

Strict liability — In products liability cases, strict liability means that a defendant may be held liable if the plaintiff proves the product is defective or dangerous, regardless of the negligence of the defendant. In other words, if the maker’s product is inherently dangerous and causes harm, they can be held liable for it.

Tort law — is an area 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, the rules of tort law apply.

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 to toys, car parts, clothing, and 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. Awarded 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 include medical expenses incurred, pain and suffering of the deceased from the time of injury until death, as well as loss of financial support and loss of love and companionship. Wrongful death damages vary by state.