Understanding Product Liability Claims In Tennessee

1. What is a products liability claim?

Answer: A products liability lawsuit is a claim that a person was injured or died due to a problem with a product.  A “product” can be almost anything that can be manufactured, including cars and planes, medication, consumer goods like lighters and lawnmowers, and industrial machinery.

In a products liability lawsuit, the manufacturer of the product can be held liable for the problem with the product that caused an injury or death.  Manufacturers include designers and makers of products, as well as those who design or make parts of products (such as the maker of an axle to be used in an automobile).

Under some circumstances, others may also be held liable in addition to or instead of the manufacturer.  If the manufacturer is not available to be sued (for example, because the company has declared bankruptcy), the seller of the product may be liable for the harm it caused.  Someone who negligently maintained the product (such as a car repair shop) may also be accountable.

2. What must be proved to win a products liability lawsuit in Tennessee?

Answer: To win a products liability lawsuit, the person who files it must prove that the product was “unreasonably dangerous” or in a “defective condition” at the time it left the manufacturer’s hands, and that is what caused the injury or death.

To prove a product was “unreasonably dangerous,” you must either prove that it was more dangerous than an ordinary consumer would expect, or prove that a reasonably prudent manufacturer would not put the product onto the market if they knew about the danger.  You do not need to prove that the manufacturer actually was aware of the danger.  Some products are so complex that an ordinary consumer would not be familiar with the way the product is expected to work.  For those complex products, you may be required to specifically prove that a manufacturer would not sell the product if it was aware of the danger.

To prove a product was in a “defective condition,” you must establish that some condition of the product made it unsafe for normal or expected use.  A product can be unsafe for several reasons.  For one, the entire product line may be designed unsafely.  On the other hand, there may be a problem at the time the product was manufactured that keeps it from performing as it was designed.  (For example, a lawnmower may be designed safely, but because of a problem during manufacturing, a bolt comes loose during use and causes the blade to fly off.)  Finally, the product may be defective because of inadequate safety warnings about the dangers presented by the product.

To win the case, the product must have been in the same condition at the time of the injury as it was when it left the manufacturer’s control.  This means that, if the product was made dangerous or defective some time after the manufacturer shipped it, the manufacturer may not be responsible for any harm the product causes.

3. How much time does a person have to file a products liability lawsuit?

Answer: Under Tennessee law, in most cases a person has one year after the date of the injury or death to file a lawsuit.  There are a number of exceptions to this rule, some of them unique to products liability cases.

First, a lawsuit must be filed within six years after the injury occurred, even if the victim does not immediately know that he or she has suffered an injury.  For example, if a product exposes the victim to toxic chemicals without the victim knowing it, and the victim develops cancer seven years later, it may be too late to file a lawsuit even before the victim was aware of the possibility of a problem.

Second, a lawsuit must be filed within ten years after the product was first purchased for use or consumption (meaning the date the product was first sold to a consumer as opposed to a store).  For example, if a car explodes during normal use eleven years after it was first sold from a dealership to a consumer, the victim may not be able to pursue a lawsuit under Tennessee law.

Third, if the product is required by law to have an expiration date posted on it (like some foods), a lawsuit must be filed within one year after the expiration of the product’s anticipated life.

Under current interpretation of the law, these three rules do not, however, apply to children who are injured by products.  Where a child is injured (but does not die), the child has until one year after the child’s eighteenth birthday to file a products liability lawsuit.

Likewise, these three rules also do not apply to people who are injured by silicone gel breast implants or exposure to asbestos.  Claims for asbestos or silicone breast implant injuries are covered by different filing deadlines.

Finally, Tennessee law may not apply to a particular claim even if the injury or death occurred in Tennessee.  Only a lawyer familiar with the facts of the particular case can determine which state’s law should determine the time limits applicable to that case.

As we hope the above paragraphs have demonstrated, the law of filing deadlines for lawsuits is very complicated.   You should never look at any of the general rules and assume any of them apply in your situation. Ask a competent lawyer for help in determining what deadline applies to your claim.

4. What damages can I recover if I win a products liability case?

Answer: In a personal injury cases, you can recover monetary damages for past and future medical bills incurred because of the injuries, past and future physical pain and suffering, past and future mental or emotional pain and suffering, loss of earning capacity, disability, lost capacity for the enjoyment of life, and disfigurement.

A significant part of many personal injury claims in the recovery of the reasonable medical bills necessarily incurred as a result of the incident.   To the extent that the injuries likely require on-going medical bills in the future, those future medical expenses can also be recovered.

Physical pain and suffering is physical discomfort caused by an injury. In the event you suffer an injury that will cause pain in the months and years after a settlement or trial, you can recover damages for that as well.

Mental or emotion pain and suffering includes anguish, distress, fear, humiliation, grief, shame, or worry.

Disfigurement is a permanent injury that impairs a person’s appearance. This includes permanent scars and lost limbs.

Lost capacity for the enjoyment of life compensates the injured person for limitations put on the ability to enjoy the pleasures of life as a result of an injury. This includes the inability to engage in activities you once enjoyed.

Disability is the loss of your ability to do the same physical things that you did before you were injured.

Loss of earning capacity is the loss of your ability to work and earn money. It may be an amount equal to your lost wages as a result of the injuries you received in the incident. If you have suffered permanent injuries that affect your ability to work and earn money, it includes those monies you are likely to lose in the future because of your injuries.

The reason loss of earning capacity may exceed lost wages is because sometimes it can be shown that a person is earning a particular wage only temporarily and will be progressing up the income ladder. For example, if a college student is injured and can never work again, it would be unfair to say that the student’s earning capacity is what he or she was making at a part-time job at McDonald’s.   Instead, expert witnesses are employed to demonstrate the likely earnings of the student over his or her work-life expectancy if the injury had not occurred.

5. I was injured by a product. What do I do?

Answer: First, make sure that the product involved is not changed, further damaged, or lost.  Do not test the product or try to re-create what occurred.  The actual product must be preserved – if the product is lost or altered from the condition it was immediately after the incident your rights will be substantially affected.  If the product that harmed you is not yours, a lawyer can help you secure the product and prevent additional damage from being done to it.

© 2010, The Law Offices of John Day, P.C.