Lawsuits are one way in which our society protects itself from conduct we consider detrimental. There are cases where shoddy practices and dangerous behavior can be profitable. Many laws have been put into place to protect workers and the general public from the willingness of a few to go to any lengths to make money. Product liability lawsuits are one way to compensate people who have been injured due to unsafe products. They are also a way to punish those who make and sell dangerous products. After a long hiatus, a number of very large jury verdicts were reached in 2014.
Product liability verdicts exceeding $1 billion appeared to be a thing of the past. Prior to 2014, it had been a decade since such a verdict was announced by a jury in a product defect case. Last year saw two such verdicts and several others that approached the barrier. It may be a sign that, after years of lobbying about “runaway juries” and the need for tort reform, juries are once again looking at the conduct of large companies and wondering why they should be allowed to kill people in the name of profit. When a company knows that something it makes is a danger to people, why should it be able to continue to make money on the product by limiting its liability through disinformation and aggressive tactics?
The record number of auto defect recalls last year (nearly 64 million vehicles) may have had something to do with juries returning to large awards. Punitive damages are one way to penalize companies than endanger the lives of consumers and others through substandard products. Some products, such as asbestos, were placed into the stream of commerce with the full knowledge that they would kill people. Other products just turn out to have weaknesses and faults that can turn deadly without warning. In each case, the maker of the good has a duty to protect the people who encounter their products. Juries may be more open than ever to the idea that corporations should not be allowed to endanger consumers just to improve their profit margins.
Source: Insurance Journal, “Large Product Liability Awards Made Comeback in 2014,” by Margaret Cronin Fisk, 19 February 2015