Americans have always struggled to balance the interests of businesses with the safety of citizens. Between the founding of the United States and the mid-19th century, American law recognized the principle of caveat emptor, or “buyer beware.” Under this principle, the consumer must make sure he or she is not using or consuming dangerous products or chemicals. Over time, however, state governments and the federal government have gained more authority to regulate hazardous products and chemicals. Additional consumer safety laws and expansive product liability legal protection have made it easier for injured consumers to recover compensation.
Dangerous Products and Chemicals in the Late 19th Century
Toxic products and dangerous chemicals have always existed in the United States. In the late 1700s, European and American apothecaries began to store poisonous in uniquely shaped bottles. By the mid-1800s, apothecaries commonly marked poison bottles with a skull and crossbones or a red label that stated “poison.” Apothecaries marked the containers in an attempt to protect consumers from accidentally mixing up the containers and consuming the poisonous chemicals.
19th Century Consumer Protection Laws
New York was the first state to pass a law regarding the labeling of dangerous products. The law required all people who sell prussic acid, arsenic, or any other poisonous suspect to mark the bottle with the word “Poison” in an obvious manner. The American Pharmaceutical Association came into existence in 1852. Doctors founded the American Medical Association (AMA) in 1847. In 1860, the AMA recommended laws that would restrict the sale of poisons. As a result, 33 states passed laws restricting the sale of poisonous substances to individuals with a pharmacist’s license who would record these sales.
In the late 1800s, inventors began designing precautionary attachments to poison bottles. At the turn of the century in 1900, journalists wrote articles that exposed the dangers of many patent medicines for not listing the ingredients on the label. For example, an American could purchase cough syrup for a teething baby and not know that the soothing syrup contained morphine as the ingredients was not listed.
20th Century Product Liability Reform
In 1906, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, making it illegal for any company to manufacture food or drugs that were misbranded or adulterated. In 1927, Congress passed the Caustic Poisons Act that mandated that warnings for caustic products appear in a transparent, plain background and include direction for treatment in case of an accidental personal injury. After World War II, more federal and state laws came into effect that mandated proper labeling of dangerous chemicals.
In 1953, the American Academy of Pediatrics found that 49% of accidents treated by physicians involved accidental poisonings. Many consumer advocacy groups fought for more protection against caustic chemicals. In 1960, Congress passed the Hazardous Substance Labeling Act, requiring that manufacturers label any household product that contained “toxic, corrosive, irritant, flammable, strong sensitizers, or pressure generating” ingredients. Child poisoning deaths feel to 25% of their 1961 levels by 1981. The provisions of the Hazardous Substance Labeling Act are still in effect today.
A Brief History of Product Liability Lawsuits in the United States
The colonists brought common tort law with them to the United States. The legal precedents in tort law have been built up over several hundred years on a case-by-case basis. Tort law seeks to protect individuals by providing a forum in which an injured individual can file a claim against another individual without seeking to take private revenge on that person. Product liability law is an area of tort law in which an individual can seek compensation for injuries caused by a dangerous product or chemical.
Most product liability laws occur at the state level. Each state has its own tort laws that require different elements of proof to file a valid claim. In the late 1800s, states began to impose implied warranties of merchantability. To recover compensation from a manufacturer of a dangerous product, the buyer must have purchased the dangerous product directly from the manufacturer. Since many Americans purchased dangerous products at retail stores, they could not bring a lawsuit as they did not buy the product directly from the manufacturer.
The Mid-Century Advent of Strict Liability for Dangerous Products
English Courts developed the legal doctrine of caveat emptor, which means “buyer beware.” Americans brought this doctrine with them to the colonies and integrated it into their court systems. Under this doctrine, consumers could not bring a lawsuit against product manufacturers who sold dangerous or defective products. For example, if a hidden defect in a product caused an injury, the injured party would have no recourse. Courts in the United States continued to use the caveat emptor rule for most of the 1800s.
In the 1950s and 1960s, courts throughout the United States began to allow injured parties to recover against the manufacturers of dangerous or defective products. Courts also began to impose strict liability on manufacturers and retailers of defective products. Under a legal theory of strict liability, the defendant is liable for damages whether or not it caused the injury. In other words, even if a manufacturer did not know it created a dangerous product, the manufacturer is still liable for the injury.
The policy reason behind allowing for strict liability is to protect consumers from dangerous products. Allowing injured parties to sue under strict liability makes it easier for them to recover from their injuries caused by hazardous products. This policy also shifts the burden of cost for product safety away from consumers onto manufacturers, improving product safety overall.
Contact a New York Product Liability Attorney Today
Thankfully, New Yorkers who have suffered an injury from a dangerous product or chemical have a right to bring a lawsuit for compensation. If you or a loved one have suffered injuries resulting from dangerous products or chemicals, you might be entitled to compensation. Contact our New York product liability lawyers today to schedule your initial consultation.