SUPPOSE A CONSUMER buys a product--a car. While driving, he crashes into a tree and spends weeks in the hospital recovering from his injuries. He misses weeks of work without pay. He soon hears news reports and sees lawyers' advertisements claiming the particular make and model car he owns might have a defect of some sort. The car manufacturer, upon investigation of his accident, believes that the car isn't defective and that negligent driving caused the crash. The consumer decides to sue the car manufacturer and the local dealership to recover his damages, including his medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering and mental anguish. What claims can the consumer pursue under state law for harm caused by the allegedly defective car?
In product liability eases, plaintiffs routinely file expansive complaints that include common law negligence, strict liability, warranty, fraud and misrepresentation claims, as well as claims permitted by various state statutes such as consumer fraud statutes or the state's version of the Uniform Commercial Code ("UCC"). Sometimes, these causes of action overlap or conflict in terms of evidence permitted and proof standards required. Sometimes, the legal claims asserted don't really even seem to fit the situation involved or the harm supposedly incurred.
Defendants want certainty as to what claims legitimately can be pursued. Uncertainty causes parties to needlessly waste time and money fighting about the proof required or permitted, the defenses available, and the appropriate jury instructions. And ultimately, uncertainty about liability exposure can discourage businesses, such as product manufacturers and sellers, from locating or remaining in the state.
To provide more certainty about potential exposure under product liability law, some states have enacted product liability statutes that clearly set forth the claims permitted and proof required when alleging damages caused by a defective product. Quite often, the proof requirements mandated by state product liability statutes are more stringent than or conflict with those required by common law of other statutory schemes. Quite often, the defenses are different or more complete.
But do such statutes actually achieve the desired stability? The answer to that question seems to depend on whether the courts enforce the statute as the exclusive means of recovery for harm caused by a product. If instead plaintiffs are allowed to plead around the statute, the stabilizing effect likely will not materialize.
Mississippi presents an interesting case study of this issue. In 1993, the Mississippi Legislature enacted the Mississippi Product Liability Act (MPLA or the Act) (1) to stabilize product liability law in Mississippi. But after having been in effect for nearly twenty years, the stabilizing effect has never really materialized. Although the Mississippi Legislature intended the Act to be the standard for product liability actions in the state, many courts have interpreted the Act as simply one option for recovery available to plaintiffs. This failure to effectuate the Act's legislative intent has diminished its effectiveness and has even added to the confusion about what a plaintiff can claim and must prove, and what defenses are available in a product liability lawsuit.
I. The MPLA
The MPLA, in its current form, allows a plaintiff to sue a product manufacturer or seller for damages caused by a product if the product has a defect that renders the product unreasonably dangerous and that dangerous condition proximately causes personal injury to the claimant. (2) The Act excepts from its seemingly broad, comprehensive scope only commercial damage to the product itself. (3) The Act provides only four specific types of defects upon which liability can be premised: 1) failure to meet manufacturing specifications; 2) inadequate warnings; 3) defective design; and 4) breach of an express warranty upon which the user justifiably relied. …