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8 of the World’s Most Famous Product Liability Cases

8 of the World’s Most Famous Product Liability Cases
Jul 20, 2020 gnuworld
product liability cases

Each year, everyday products from cars to coffee, cigarettes to petrol cause disease, injury and death.

The court cases that arise from liability claims against the manufacturers of these products make headlines around the world.

Here are eight of the most famous.

1. McDonald’s: Coffee

Sheila Liebeck suffered third-degree burns after spilling a cup of McDonald’s coffee in her lap.

Liebeck was hospitalised for eight days. She underwent skin grafts and her medical treatment continued for two years.

Liebeck offered to settle the case for just US$20,000, to cover her medical expenses and lost income. McDonald’s returned an offer of just US$800, so the case went to trial.

Liebeck’s legal team successfully argued that the fast-food giant was liable because its coffee was served at a scalding 180°F to 190°F. Other companies served coffee at a safer 140°F.

In 1994, a jury awarded Liebeck US$2.86 million in punitive damages and US$160,000 for medical expenses.

McDonald’s admitted it had known about the risk of serious burns from its hot coffee for more than 10 years. The risk had been brought to its attention through numerous claims and suits.

The Hot Coffee Case, as it became known, was the most debated product liability case in American history. Ultimately, the trial judge reduced the final payout and the parties settled for a confidential amount.

2. Owen’s Corning: Asbestos Materials

In 1998, the building company Owen’s Corning agreed to pay out US$1.2 billion in damages. This was in response to more than 176,000 claims of disease and death due to asbestos in the company’s building materials.

Ultimately, the company set aside US$2.6 billion in a fund earmarked for claims.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring silicate used to strengthen and fireproof certain materials. Prolonged inhalation of asbestos is known to cause diseases such as mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.

Asbestos is now banned in many countries, including South Africa.

3. Blitz: Gas Cans

Blitz, formerly the largest manufacturer of portable plastic gas (petrol) cans in the United States, was forced to file for bankruptcy after dozens of successful product liability lawsuits as a result of exploding cans.

Customers throughout the United States filed cases against Blitz after cans exploded when petrol was being poured. The incidents started fires, causing burns and deaths.

In 2012 alone, more than 30 cases were filed and each claim cost the company an average of US$4 million.

Legal representatives argued that Blitz (and retailer Wal-Mart) knowingly sold a defective product that could explode, causing catastrophic and fatal injuries.

Lawyers said the companies refused to add a safety device, known as a flame arrester, that would make the cans safer.

4. Remington: Rifles

When a Texan shot himself in the foot while hunting it probably wouldn’t have crossed his mind that he’d be awarded a US$15 million payout.

But the shot wasn’t caused by the man’s poor aim. It was caused by a faulty fire-control system on the Remington rifle.

The fault caused the rifle to fire even when the trigger hadn’t been pulled. All that was needed was the release of the safety latch, which could happen when the rifle was bumped or jarred.

5. Toyota: Cars

Toyota agreed to pay out US$1.1 billion to settle a class-action lawsuit following the recall of millions of its cars in 2010 after a series of accidents and deaths allegedly caused by a “sticky” accelerator pedal.

Lawyers pointed out that a safety mechanism wasn’t installed in many of its cars, which increased the chances of an accident if the accelerator malfunctioned.

6. Dow Corning: Silicone Breast Implants

More than 100,000 women who suffered rupture, leakage and illnesses associated with Dow Corning silicone breast implants received settlement awards following a massive class-action lawsuit.

Dow Corning set aside US$3 billion in a settlement trust following the lawsuit that alleged that women with its implants often experienced auto-immune disorders, arthritis, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, connective-tissue disease, lupus, scleroderma and other autoimmune diseases.

7. Ledraplastic: Balancing Balls

In 2009, NBA basketball player Francisco Garcia was using weights on a balancing ball made by Ledraplastic when it burst, leaving him with a fractured right forearm.

Garcia and his team, the Sacramento Kings, filed a product liability suit for US$4 million in lost salaries and an additional US$26 million in damages.

Their legal team pointed out that Ledraplastic marketed the ball as being able to withstand 600 pounds (272 kg) and being “burst resistant”.

They claimed that the ball burst while Garcia was carrying only 180 pounds (82 kg) of weights.

During testing, Garcia’s attorney recreated the ball bursting with 400 pounds (181 kg) on it. Ledraplastic eventually settled for an undisclosed sum.

8. Philip Morris: Cigarettes

In 2002, tobacco giant Philip Morris was ordered to pay punitive damages of a staggering US$28 billion to lung cancer sufferer Betty Bullock, 64, of Missouri.

The jury accepted her legal team’s claim that Bullock’s tobacco addiction was caused by the company’s failure to warn her of the risks of smoking.

Bullock had started smoking in the 1950s when she was 17. Her legal team argued that Philip Morris concealed the dangers of cigarettes with a widespread misinformation campaign that began in the 1950s.

Bullock, whose cancer had spread to her liver, was awarded US$850,000 in compensatory damages. The case was appealed and eventually settled for US$28 million.

Some of the biggest recent product liability cases

Since 2018, there have been product liability cases that have paid out billions of dollars to claimants. These include cases against:

  • Bayer and Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer, which contains cancer-causing glyphosate
  • Johnson & Johnson’s talc products, which contain traces of toxic asbestos
  • Hoffmann-LaRoche’s acne drug Accutane, which failed to warn of possible gastro-intestinal side-effects
  • Pacific Gas & Electric’s utility equipment, which caused fires that killed dozens of people.
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