Do you think it’s fair to ask riding lawnmower manufacturers to pay for the medical care of children injured in riding lawnmower accidents? How about asking meat blender suppliers to compensate people injured by commercial blenders? Neither of these events happen all that often, and the cost would be passed on to consumers, making the question: would you mind paying a little bit more for your lawnmower to set up a fund for children who lost part of their leg, sometimes much more, after being run over by riding lawnmower? How about a little bit more for your hamburger in case the person blending the meat loses their hand when the blades unexpectedly keep spinning?
Sometimes, a court just plain gets it right, and Justice Nix of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court got it right 34 years ago in adopting strict liability in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania:
The realities of our economic society as it exists today forces the conclusion that the risk of loss for injury resulting from defective products should be borne by the suppliers, principally because they are in a position to absorb the loss by distributing it as a cost of doing business. In an era of giant corporate structures, utilizing the national media to sell their wares, the original concern for an emerging manufacturing industry has given way to the view that it is now the consumer who must be protected.
Azzarello v. Black Bros. Co., 391 A.2d 1020 (Pa. 1978). That’s the argument eminent torts professor William Prosser had been making for “strict liability” for decades. See, e.g. Prosser’s Strict Liability to the Consumer, 18 Hastings L.J. 9 (1966). The concept of strict liability was quite simple: whereas an injured person could always sue a manufacturer for negligence and then prevail by proving the manufacturer acted unreasonably by failing to guard against foreseeable harms, strict liability eschewed any question of the manufacturer’s conduct and instead focused on the product itself, making manufacturers liable for injuries caused by products that were so unsafe as to be “defective.”
The whole point of strict liability was, as explained by Azzarello, to make suppliers of surprisingly unsafe goods (i.e., goods that turned out to be more dangerous than consumers expected they would be) the insurer for accidents caused by the product. It’s a recognition that, in this day and age, consumer goods can contain a variety of risks that are more easily borne by the manufacturer, which made the decision to market the product, has better access to insurance, and can distribute the costs of these unexpected injuries on other consumers. In practice, strict liability is usually only successful where the product totally failed, resulting in catastrophic injuries. Consider some of the early strict liability cases, the ones characterized more as warranty cases than as the tort of strict liability: