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Defective Consumer Products

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According to the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC), defective consumer products injure or kill millions of people every year, costing the "nation $800 billion annually." In 2007 alone, an estimated 11,584,599 persons required hospital treatment for injuries caused by harmful products.

If you believe a defective product caused or aggravated your injuries, review the information below and contact a personal injury attorney to understand your legal rights.

Consumer Product Liability Law

Not all products are created equally. Products that malfunction or cause harm due to design flaws, manufacturing errors or inadequate warnings or directions are considered defective. Victims of accidents involving defective automobile products often are able to receive compensation under strict product liability laws. These laws require victims to prove:

  • They were harmed by the defective product
  • The defect is "unreasonably dangerous"

It is important to note that in cases governed by product liability laws, victims do not need to prove negligence.


Both compensatory damages and punitive damages can be awarded to victims who have been harmed by defective products. Compensatory damages reimburse victims for defect-related expenses. While the standards for determining compensatory damages vary by state, they usually are determined by formulas taking into account the extent of the victim's injuries. Insurance companies and juries award victims compensatory damages to pay for their medical expenses, lost income, lost prospects and physical and psychological pain. Punitive damages serve as punishment to the party at fault and are meant to discourage others from making the same mistakes or errors.


For further information about defective product settlements and how to receive compensation for a claim in your state, contact a products liability attorney.

Establishing a Consumer Product Design Defect

To receive compensation for an accident involving a product defect, the victim and/or the victim's attorney needs to prove the product was "unreasonably dangerous." This can be done by showing:

  • The design is not as safe as one would expect and/or
  • The risks that come with using the product are greater than the benefits. One way to show this would be by offering an example of a safer design that is just as effective.

A well-known case, Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants, also known as the McDonald's Coffee Case, illustrates a consumer product design defect. In February 1992, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck, who was riding in the passenger seat of a car driven by her grandson, ordered a cup of coffee at a McDonald's restaurant drive-through window.

After picking up the order, Stella's grandson pulled the car ahead a short distance and stopped, so Stella could add cream and sugar to her coffee. Stella held the Styrofoam cup between her legs to remove the plastic lid. In the process, the coffee spilled onto her lap, saturating the sweatpants she was wearing, inflicting third-degree burns on her inner legs, groin and buttocks. She was hospitalized for several days for treatment of her burns, which included removing dead tissue and grafting skin.

An investigation determined that McDonald's practice was to sell coffee at a temperature of between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to maintain peak flavor and, also, hot enough to inflict third-degree burns. The investigation showed, too, that while the coffee that spilled on Stella's lap had cooled to between 165 and 170 degrees Fahrenheit, it was still hot enough to inflict third-degree burns.

The excessively high temperature of McDonald's coffee made it "unreasonably dangerous." An ordinary coffee drinker does not expect a cup of coffee to be hotter than the temperature typically reached by home-brewed coffee (between 135 and 140 degrees). This was substantiated in Stella's case by the fact that many customers had complained to McDonald's about their hot coffee prior to Stella's accident. In addition, an ordinary coffee drinker does not expect to receive third-degree burns from spilled coffee.

The court determined that the benefit of excellent flavor apparently associated with the high temperature of McDonald's coffee did not outweigh its risk. It was also determined that McDonald's could have served very good tasting coffee at a lower temperature. This practice was already common, not only in similar restaurants, but also in ordinary coffee drinkers' private homes, with apparently satisfactory results.

The jury found McDonald's coffee to be defective, awarding Stella $200,000 in compensatory damages and $2,700,000 in punitive damages. Later, compensatory damages were reduced to $160,000 and punitive damages to $480,000 because Stella was found to be 20 percent liable for the accident. Before the case could be appealed, it was settled for an undisclosed amount.

Examples of Defective Consumer Products

A defective consumer product is any product that poses a safety risk. Among others, defective products can include:

  • Toys. A toy can be dangerous in a variety of ways. For example, a toy may create a choking hazard, fire hazard, strangulation hazard or allergy hazard.
  • Cribs. Cribs can pose several kinds of threats. For example, side-rail spindles may be spaced too far apart, causing entrapment of an infant's head; side-rails may fail to stay in the up position, allowing an infant to fall out of the crib; and mattresses may be too soft, putting an infant in danger of suffocation.
  • Cosmetics. Cosmetics have been recalled because they contain lead and/or other toxic elements.
  • Power tools. Power tools are defective if, among other characteristics, they have a tendency to catch fire, cause electrocution and/or cause lacerations when being used in a reasonable manner.
  • Cigarette lighters. Cigarette lighters may be defective if they don't have safety mechanisms that prevent small children from lighting them or if they fail to extinguish after use.
  • Household chemicals. Household chemicals can be found to be defective if they cause injury or death because they were accidentally ingested, inhaled or exposed to the skin. They also can be found defective if they have a tendency to catch fire or explode during ordinary use.

If you suspect that a defective product contributed to your injuries or the wrongful deaths, a consumer products liability attorney can help you determine whether you are eligible for compensation. Contact a personal injury attorney for more information regarding personal injury and filing a lawsuit for fatality.

When You Need a Products Liability Attorney

Products liability attorneys are experienced and skilled in handling claims involving defective products. Insurance companies, which handle more minor claims, can be difficult to deal with and sometimes offer to settle claims for less than maximum value. A defective products lawyer can help evaluate the situation and facilitate a claim if a victim is experiencing:

  • Denied claims
  • Delays in settling the claim
  • Less-than-full reimbursement of their defective product-related expenses, including medical bills, lost income, lost prospects and psychological pain

Steps You Can Take to Help Win a Lawsuit

To help your insurance company or your products liability attorney prove that a defective product caused your injuries and win a product liability lawsuit, you should take appropriate steps to preserve evidence from the accident. Keep possession of the defective product that led to your injury, along with medical records pertaining to your injuries. In addition, be sure to photograph the product as well as your injuries, and contact the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) to find out if there is a recall on the product that harmed you.