The American tort system is still the most expensive justice system for remedying a civil wrong, costing $260 billion in 2004; this according to a recently published paper authored by experts from the legal and insurance sectors and produced in collaboration with the US Chamber of Commerce. One area proving to be extremely sensitive to tort suits is product liability. The paper notes that product liability exposures present serious and unforeseeable problems for American manufacturers and negatively impact their ability to compete in a global market.
The problems resulting from product liability are caused by a number of sources, including new theories of liability, unexpected liability exposures or commonly used substances that are now alleged to be harmful even in trace amounts opening the floodgates to new litigation.
The paper goes on to discuss five emergent areas of products liability exposure:
- Lead paint – Suits are once again being brought against lead pigment and paint manufacturers on a large scale. In the earlier cases, these manufacturers were successful in obtaining favorable rulings by arguing that plaintiffs couldn’t prove it was individual manufacturers that caused the alleged illnesses.
Until recently, lead paint and pigment manufacturers have also been successful in stopping actions filed by federal and state government. However, since mid-2005, two new liability theories have been used to argue cases that will prove to be a problem for manufacturers. State and municipal governments have successfully used the concept of public nuisance, as the basis of their cause of action, saying that the lead paint manufacturers’ failure to abate existing lead paint conditions in homes constitutes a nuisance. The other theory is that of market share liability, which spreads liability to manufacturers in proportion to their market share when a product cannot be traced to any specific maker.
- Benzene – Benzene exposure has been associated with numerous illnesses, including blood disorders, central nervous system damage, immune system damage, lung and bladder cancer, and female fertility disorders. Millions of American workers are exposed to benzene on the job daily.
- Pharmaceuticals – Product liability claims are a constant in the pharmaceutical industry. Anyone who reads a newspaper or watches television is aware of the suits involving Vioxx, Fen-Phen, and Rezulin. Plaintiffs in pharmaceutical cases may seek damages for actual or anticipated bodily injuries as well as any related economic loss associated with the use of a drug.
- Welding rods – Welding rods are a major focus of litigation, with more than 10,000 current plaintiffs nationwide. The basis for this litigation is whether welding rod fumes containing manganese cause neurological damage.
- Diacetyl – This is a butter-flavored ketone. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) believes that exposure to this chemical may result in bronchiolitisobliterans, also known as “popcorn packers lung.” The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the United States Environmental Protection Agency have also been studying diacetyl and its negative affects on pulmonary functions.