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.
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.
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.
Trial lawyers also used the civil courts to help expose horrific problems with cars manufactured by Toyota, General Motors and other manufacturers that caused hundreds of deaths and injuries as vehicles suddenly sped out of control or unexpectedly shut down in traffic. The civil justice system held auto makers accountable and helped prod regulators to launch recalls, order changes and levy massive penalties.
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.