Product Liability: The Role of the Product Steward

By Bruen, James A. | Risk Management, February 2002 | Go to article overview
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Product Liability: The Role of the Product Steward


Bruen, James A., Risk Management


Product liability case law and product liability cases have been around for at least half a century. Every manufacturer, distributor and retailer-along with every one of their lawyers--should see defect claims and suits coming, and yet compensatory and punitive damage awards are going through the roof. Why?

Courts and juries see carefully maintained evidence that tracks the development of complaints and defects. This tracking is done to protect defendant manufacturers, distributors and retailers in the event of a lawsuit. This same evidence, however, reveals little (if any) good faith efforts to protect the consumer.

Since it is nearly impossible to deal with defects after a product hits the market, preventive procedures must be in place to avoid facing changes in design, manufacturing practices and warnings in a postdistribution atmosphere charged with anxiety over brand reputation, product recall and admissions of liability. This kind of situation can be avoided under the guidance of a position that is designed to protect both the company and its customers: the product steward.

The Role of the Product Steward

Automobile, aircraft and pharmaceutical companies have used product stewards for decades, but the position is slowly branching out into other sectors. Product stewards can be individuals or members of a multidisciplinary product stewardship committee. Their responsibilities cut across departments or other business jurisdictional lines and their roles vary by industry and company, but they have certain attributes in common. It is the duty of every product steward to:

* review the design of the product;

* monitor the quality assurance and quality control of the manufacture of the product;

* establish, monitor and update the literature (specifically including all warnings) that accompanies the product through the chain of distribution to the consumer;

* evaluate changes in laws and regulations that may apply to product design, manufacture, literature or the ultimate disposal of the product upon the completion of its life cycle;

* evaluate and make appropriate recommendations in light of consumer complaint reports;

* establish and oversee the record retention policies that apply to each of the specific functions listed above.

Ideally, there would be neither cause nor remedy for any type of product defect that falls outside the ambit of the properly empowered steward.

The Cost (and Not-So-Hidden Benefits) of Product Stewardship

The principal cost of product stewardship occurs when an organization must alter product design, product manufacture and product literature to stay in the bounds of applicable laws, industry standards and consumer complaints. No manufacturer (or other entity in the chain of distribution)'should undertake the task of product stewardship unless it is prepared in advance to deal with (i.e., fix) the issues legitimately raised by the product steward.

This means changing outdated or defective designs, improving manufacturing quality control, changing product literature, responding to genuinely or disingenuously dissatisfied consumers. It also means enforcing a company product document policy that will entail the proper disposal of unnecessary documents.

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