Consumers may think they are adequately protected from dangerous products by benevolent corporations that will go out of their way to prevent injuring or killing their customers.
Or they may think they are adequately protected by government regulations designed to keep unsafe products off the market.
If only those things were enough to guarantee safety. Fortunately, consumers have another line of defense: the civil justice system.
Our civil courts do more than compensate injured consumers and hold corporations accountable for the harm caused by their wares. The courts also force manufacturers to remove dangerous goods from the marketplace and make changes that create safe products, even when government regulations and corporate goodwill have been unable or unwilling to do so.
The list of products that have been improved to the benefit of consumer safety includes automobiles, prescription drugs, children’s pajamas, home appliances, toys, sports equipment, farm machinery, construction tools, personal hygiene products, medical devices, furniture, aircraft, boats and much more.
CARS: The Ford Pinto, one of the most popular cars of the 1970s, had a lethal defect. Dozens of people were killed in minor rear-end crashes because of a faulty design that left the gas tank unprotected and vulnerable to explosion. Government didn’t protect consumers – in fact the vehicle’s design met all government standards of its time. Ford didn’t protect consumers. Internal company documents showed that Ford knew it could fix the problem for as little as $11 per car. But executives calculated it would be more profitable to leave the vehicle unchanged and pay victims.
It took a civil lawsuit along with litigation on gas tank hazards in other cars to bring about requirements for improved gas tank safety and cause manufacturers to redesign the placement of gas tanks.
View ProtectConsumerJustice.org's "Road Warriors" interactive graphic which illustrates some of the positive changes consumer attorneys have helped bring about to improve safety in cars.
More recently, nearly 300 people were killed in crashes caused by tread separation of Firestone tires on Ford Explorers. Company documents showed both Firestone and Ford officials had known for years about the tire problems and the rollovers that resulted. But it wasn’t until lawsuits put the issue in the spotlight that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began an investigation that led to the tires’ recall.
Even air bags — a safety feature we now take for granted — were equipped on only 2% of new vehicles as recently as 1988. But after more than a hundred lawsuits alleged manufacturers knew that thousands of deaths each year resulted from the absence of air bags, and automakers began losing in court or paying settlements, air bags became standard.
Lawsuits led to impact-absorbing dashboards and steering columns, side-impact and rollover protection, better tires and door latches, safer auto glass and power windows, stronger seats and seat belts, and the scientific use of crash tests.
TOYS: Legal actions have consistently led manufacturers and regulators to make changes to improve safety. For instance, the federal Consumer Products Safety Commission was unable to persuade an importer to recall toy soft-dart guns imported from China, even after two children choked to death on a dart. But after the parents of one of the children filed suit, a retailer finally agreed to recall the guns.
One of the most dangerous components of toys is one that is invisible: lead, particularly when it is on children’s jewelry that can be swallowed by youngsters, leading to possible permanent neurological damage or death. But while China has refused efforts to ban lead on toys exported to the U.S., legal cases have made a difference. One recent class action led the manufacturer of popular Thomas the Tank Engine toys that were contaminated with lead to make improvements.
The Slip ‘N Slide had a design that made people above a certain weight vulnerable to possible neck fractures. The original manufacturer, Wham-O, discontinued the product in the 1970s after three reports of broken necks. But after Wham-O was sold in 1982, the new owner brought back the Slip ‘N Slide, leading to additional deaths and injuries resulting in quadriplegia. Lawsuits brought the danger of the Slip ‘N Slide to public attention, and as a result the company stopped making the product, recalled products from retail shelves and issued a safety alert.
CHILDREN’S PAJAMAS: The horrific case of a 4-year-old who suffered severe burns after her pajama top caught fire as she leaned over an electric stove in 1969 led to a lawsuit. Evidence produced at trial showed the manufacturer knew of the fabric’s flammability in the 1950s but, in order to save money, made a conscious decision not to treat the fabric with a flame-retardant chemical unless it was required to do so by government regulations. A jury’s award of compensatory and punitive damages led to the pajamas being taken off the market.
TAMPONS: In the early 1980s, Playtex began marketing a super-absorbent tampon, despite studies that showed a link between the product and Toxic Shock Syndrome. At least 2,000 women suffered TSS and about 100 died before Playtex took the product off the market in 1985 – but only after a court awarded $10 million in punitive damages to the family of a woman who died from an infection related to her tampon use, and the judge agreed to reduce the award if the tampons were taken off the market.
INTRAUTERINE DEVICES: G.D. Searle’s Copper-7 IUD, introduced in 1974, caused pelvic infections, ectopic pregnancies and infertility in a number of women who used it. Litigation produced internal company documents that had been withheld from the public in which company officials expressed doubt that the product would be safe for women who had not borne children. After a number of lawsuits were filed and the company was no longer able to obtain products liability insurance, G.D. Searle took the device off the market.
Similarly, litigation led A.H. Robins Co. to agree to urge doctors to remove its Dalkon Shield IUD from women and to pay for the removal. The company had not issued warnings even after it learned dozens of women had reported spontaneous abortions caused by infections as a result of using the device. The Dalkon Shield was taken off the market in 1974 after a request from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but A.H. Robins did not agree to protect women who were still using the device until a decade later, after it had racked up nearly $25 million in punitive damage awards and feared more to come.
DRUGS: Johnson & Johnson made more than $1 billion in the 1990s from sales of the prescription heartburn drug Propulsid, even though the company knew the drug had potentially lethal side effects such as cardiac arrhythmia. Lawsuits filed by injured patients and their families uncovered documents showing J&J had never conducted some studies recommended by federal regulators and never published other studies that might have given doctors information about risks related to the drug. In addition, it was found the company was advocating the drug’s use for children, despite having agreed not to market its use for children because of their increased risk of side effects. By the time Propulsid was finally taken off the market in 2000, at least 300 people had died and some 16,000 injured as a result of the drug.
McNeil, the maker of Tylenol, had known since the late 1970s about how the combination of acetaminophen and alcohol can result in liver damage. But that knowledge wasn’t made public until it was discovered in a lawsuit filed on behalf of a man who required an emergency liver transplant in 1993 after taking Extra-Strength Tylenol and drinking wine. A jury returned a multi-million dollar verdict against McNeil, and evidence presented by the victim’s attorney to the FDA led the regulator to require warnings on the labels of acetaminophen products.
APPLIANCES: In 1998, a 9-year-old girl who was trying to add towels to a load of laundry during the washing machine’s agitation cycle suffered severe injuries – and eventually lost part of her arm – when her hand got caught and was pulled into the machine. As part of the settlement of a lawsuit, the manufacturer (which makes machines for Frigidaire, Westinghouse and several other major brands) agreed to equip all new machines with a safety switch that prevents parts from moving when the lid is open.
POWER TOOLS: A lawsuit filed after a man was injured by a Sears Craftsman radial arm saw revealed that Sears knew about hundreds of amputations that resulted from the saw’s lack of a lower blade guard, but the company chose not to add the inexpensive feature that would enhance safety. The Consumer Products Safety Commission used the evidence uncovered in the litigation to order a recall of nearly four million of the saws.