Product liability cases arise when manufacturers, suppliers, distributers or retailers who make products available to the general public are held accountable for injuries that the products they supply have caused.

If it’s known that a product can be dangerous, manufacturers or retailers typically include warning labels, summarizing the hazards that the product may pose. However, sometimes hazards aren’t recognized or are difficult to predict. In other cases, manufacturers simply disregard hazards. Sometimes this is because they assume that the cost of liability will be lower overall than the cost of modifying a product to make it safer.

Consider some of the most costly and well-known product liability court cases in recent history.

McDonald’s Coffee

McDonalds Coffee

Image by MIKI Yoshihito (CC BY 2.0)

An elderly woman who suffered severe burns from a scalding-hot cup of coffee from McDonald’s filed a product liability case. Initially she aimed simply to sue for the cost of her medical expenses, but McDonald’s refused to pay. This led the woman to sue for a greater amount. A jury eventually awarded the elderly burn victim the $200,000 initially requested for medical and other compensatory damages, as well as $2.7 million in punitive damages.

Ford Pinto

Ford Pinto

Image by France1978 (CC BY-SA 2.0)

During the 1970s, the now-defunct Ford Pinto was the cause of a lengthy series of product liability and negligence cases. The vehicle even made its way onto Time Magazine’s list of the 50 worst cars of all time. The Pinto was known to have a design defect that made it far less safe than its counterparts at the time. A document now known as the Ford Pinto Memo revealed that Ford conducted a cost benefit analysis, indicating that the cost of possible liability would be lower than the cost of repairing the defect.

Vioxx

Pills

Image by epSos.de (CC BY 2.0)

In 2006, a jury in New Jersey found that Merck, a gigantic pharmaceutical corporation, had intentionally misled the United States Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, regarding the safety of a painkiller known as Vioxx. The plaintiff in the 2006 case, John McDarby, had suffered from a heart attack after using Vioxx for four years. He was awarded $4.5 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

Exploding Coca-Cola

Coke bottles

Image by nick.amoscato (CC BY 2.0)

The Escola vs. Coca-Cola Bottling Co. case defined many of the standards used in today’s product liability cases. A bottle of Coca Cola burst and shattered glass into the plaintiff’s hand. The cuts she suffered were as deep as five inches, and the glass severed a number of muscles, nerves and vessels. In a case that was appealed in the Supreme Court of California, the verdict was given in the plaintiff’s favour. Judges take note of this case because the product manufacturer was held accountable on strict liability, rather than negligence, standards.

Defective Sta-Rite Pool Drain Cover

Pool drain

Image by ThisParticularGreg (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In 2008, a young girl was tragically disembowelled by the suction power of a pool drain that had its lid left off. Edwards, now a senator, represented the plaintiff. During jury deliberation, Sta-Rite made an offer to settle for $25 million.

Blitz Gas Cans

Gas can

Image by StockMonkeys.com (CC BY 2.0)

Once the largest producer of mobile gas cans in the United States, Blitz eventually filed for bankruptcy in early 2012 because of a barrage of product liability lawsuits against it. Customers around the country sued the company when they used the cans to pour gas to start fires, and the cans exploded. Each claim cost the company around $4 million dollars, and more than 30 cases were filed in 2012 alone.

Remington Rifles

Remington rifles

Image by brad_holt (CC BY 2.0)

The 700 and 710 models of Remington rifle were proven to have faulty fire control, causing the guns to fire even when the trigger hadn’t been pulled. All that was needed for one of the rifles to fire was for the safety latch to be released, and this occurred by accident when the rifle was bumped or jarred. Many product liability cases were filed against Remington, culminating in a $15 million lawsuit filed by a Texas man who shot himself in the right foot while out hunting.