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Leading Out Loud: Product Liability

Two experts answer questions on product liability claims trends and technologies.

August 30, 2022 Photo

What trends in product liability claims are our experts keeping their eyes on? And what technologies are being used to defend lawsuits? Our two experts offer their opinions.

Are there any industry or manufacturing trends that you have your eye on as a potential source for future product liability claims or litigation?

Brad Davis, Envista Forensics: I have been dealing with a number of lithium-ion and lithium-polymer battery systems. The demand for battery-powered devices seems to be never-ending, and the desire to have even greater energy density in the battery packs (thus greater runtime or power) is always increasing. There are companies that are copying the technology of some of the innovators in the space, but they are not getting all of the criteria right because they are simply copying and not designing. This can lead to failures of those systems, which can have large consequences.

Steven Hall, Rimkus: One trend that we have our eye on is the convergence of sensor, processing, AI, and IoT technologies and their application to a wide variety of products. This could start to raise questions about why manufacturers did not adopt them for various safety functions. If it is possible to detect and respond to hazardous conditions using technology, then there will increasingly be an expectation that any given product does so. 

Essentially, given the existence and expansion of these technologies, any action required of the user (e.g., warnings and instructions) will be subject to the question of “Why isn’t this automated?” The common “safety hierarchy” argument—that all hazards must be designed out unless you can prove that it is impossible to do so—will become more prominent, as automation will be seen as a way to design out almost anything.

Manufacturers will need to understand and communicate clearly about the abilities and limitations of such technologies. Either premature adoption of unreliable automation or late adoption of useful automation can be perilous. The ever-moving frontier of where automation is superior and preferable to relying on human performance will need to be constantly monitored.

What are some of the new techniques, strategies, or technologies being used to defend product liability claims and lawsuits?

Steven Hall, Rimkus: Providing written and graphical safety information through user manuals and product labels has historically been important in product safety and liability prevention. Recent trends have opened new possibilities for providing safety information through digital media, such as videos, web pages, animations, and mobile applications.

Digital media can support myriad benefits for safety information, such as searchability, updatability, translatability, accessibility, and intelligence to the user experience (i.e., temporal, logical, or functional proximity to hazards). Many manufacturers are using digital media to supplement their system of safety information, or even replace traditional media, in response to business pressures or evolving consumer preferences.

Indeed, consumers have reported in recent surveys that, for many kinds of products, they expect user manuals to be available online, they feel capable of accessing manuals online, and they have consulted online videos for product assembling or troubleshooting. In light of these trends, new guidance is actively in development, such as ANSI Z535.7, American National Standard for Product Safety Information in Electronic Media.

Of course, particularly when replacing printed information with digital media, manufacturers must weigh any potential benefits against practical considerations, such as user internet access during product use, maintenance of web pages and URLs, and supporting various devices and user populations. From a liability prevention standpoint, manufacturers should continue to demonstrate their efforts to make safety information accessible to consumers and consider taking advantage of new digital delivery options where appropriate.

Brad Davis, Envista Forensics: Computed tomography (CT) is being used far more often in the process of lab inspections of equipment. It used to be that CT was used only in special situations. Now, CT is being used to accurately study the structure of items prior to or, in some cases, in lieu of excavation or disassembly. It is a tool that can greatly aid in determining the state of equipment prior to possible manipulation during the disassembly.

Brad Davis, PE, is assistant technical director of the electrical/mechanical practice at Envista Forensics. brad.davis@envistaforensics.com

Steven Hall, CPSM, is a director of Rimkus’ human factors practice. shall@appliedsafety.com


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