Tort Law: When Are Manufacturers Liable?

A red car crashes into the back of a yellow car in a crash test for a tort law manufacturer liability case

    In Brief:

  • Product liability and manufacturer liability are key components of tort law.

  • These specific liability types can determine the outcome of tort law cases in the U.S.

  • Learn more about product liability and manufacturer liability in detail below!

Stories about injuries and lawsuits from defective products are common in the news cycle. But how exactly do defective products relate to tort law in the United States? In fact, product liability and manufacturer liability play a key role in this area of the law and how it shapes the broader American legal system. Let’s take a deep dive into this critical area of tort law to learn more, starting with product liability!

What is Product Liability?

Product liability is an area of the law that concerns the legal liability of manufacturers, suppliers, distributors, retailers, traders, and others who make products available to the public. If a product is faulty or injures a customer, these entities can be held liable for legal action on behalf of consumers for these injuries. 

Do determine when, how, and why manufacturers and others along the supply chain are liable under tort law, it’s important to also understand the types of liability, examples of cases that may result in product liability, and the theories behind legal liability. 

Types of Liability

To determine when manufacturers and others can be held liable, several distinct types of liability actually exist. After determining when the liability occured in the product cycle, the entity involved who was at fault can then be held liable for legal action. 

Specifically, these types of liability include:

  • Manufacturing defects
  • Design defects
  • Failure to warn

Manufacturing Defects

Manufacturing defects occur during the manufacturing of an item and are typically the result of poor workmanship or low-quality materials. 

Design Defects

Design defects are when the product itself was designed in a way that’s inherently dangerous to the public no matter how well it was manufactured. In a court of law, this must be proven by showing that the product’s risks are greater than its benefits or that it doesn’t live up to consumer expectations as a safe product.

Failure to Warn

Also known as marketing defects, failure to warn defects occur in products that have dangers that are not obvious to the consumer, usually in the form of proper instructions or sufficient warning labels.  These dangers are present no matter how well the product itself was designed or manufactured, but can be alleviated by proper warnings to the customer. 

A hammer and gavel used in a tort law case

Examples of Cases That Can Result in Product Liability

These types of liability can be applied to many product liability cases in court by plaintiffs seeking to prove that a product is dangerous and hurt someone. 

Examples of manufacturing defects cases include motorcycles with missing brake pads, medicine that contains dangerous substances, or chairs with cracked legs, while examples of defectively-designed products include car models that can tip or skid when turning corners and sunglasses that don’t protect the eyes of consumers from dangerous ultraviolet rays. Failure to warn court cases often result from inadequate warnings or instructions for customers, with some examples being medicine that doesn’t contain any warning labels about dangerous side effects that may occur if it’s taken in combination with other over-the-counter drugs. 

In all of these cases, the plaintiff must prove that the injury a customer suffered was specifically due to a design, manufacturing, or marketing defect. Once this has been established in a court of law, the company or individual at fault may be found liable for damages. For example, a car company that relied on poor materials and workmanship when manufacturing its vehicles can be found liable for any damages that occurred due to this manufacturing defect, such as a defective brake system that directly resulted in customer injuries by people driving their cars on the road. 

Legal Liability Theories

In tort law in the United States, the types of claims usually associated with product liability cases include breach of warranty, negligence, strict liability, and consumer protection claims.

Breach of Warranty

This occurs when a manufacturer or retailer’s product breaches their warranty, a written guarantee issued to a consumer that states that a manufacturer will repair or replace a product if necessary within a specified time period. If a manufacturer fails to uphold their warranty, they could be subject to legal action by consumers impacted.


A negligence claim in product liability cases consists of a duty owed, the breach of that duty, an injury caused by that breach, and the damage suffered by the injury party as a result. For example, if a manufacturer didn’t bother to include adequate warning labels on a product that could potentially harm someone, they could be liable for legal action if injuries arise from their negligence.

Strict Liability

Strict liability claims apply if a product is defective, even if the manufacturer wasn’t negligent during the design or manufacturing of the product itself. This differs from negligence claims, which focus on whether a manufacturer failed to uphold an industry’s standard of care. 

Consumer Protection

Many U.S. states also have enacted consumer protection laws to defend consumers from various types of defects that may arise in product liability cases. Manufacturers may find themselves liable for violating these laws too if their products are found to have manufacturing, design, or marketing defects.