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3-D printers' relationship to product liability law

Product liability law as we know it may be changing. The predicted change is based on a recent development in production and manufacturing: 3-D printers. Any product liability lawyer would probably be able to tell our readers that those using such devices and the products they produce should be alert to these possible changes.

In a recently published article in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, a professor outlined her research regarding this developing litigation issue. The professor specifically examined the impact that

3-D printers will have on consumer protection legal tools, including product liability cases.

Her focus is on the "commercial-casual divide." This distinction has to do with the source of the product: whether the manufacturer or distributer is commercial or a more casual, individual producer and dispenser. Under the current state of the law, product liability only extends to the former, commercial seller. 3-D printers, however, make production and distribution easier for the more casual seller. Thus, the increase in the use of 3-D printers by smaller, more casual businesses may lead to a gap in legal recovery. Consumers may not be able to recover under a product liability theory for injuries sustained as a result of product produced by a 3-D printer.

The professor's research suggests that the legal landscape may be changing on strict product liability cases. There are other theories under which consumers can recover for their injuries, however, whether they are caused by a commercial or casual manufacturer and seller.

For example, an injured party can still maintain a case based on negligence or breach of warranty. As with any negligence suit, a plaintiff must demonstrate five main elements: (1) duty; (2) breach; (3) actual cause; (4) proximate cause; and (5) damages.

In contrast, breach of a warranty is grounded in contract law. It is based on the idea that the manufacturer or seller has made a guarantee and then failed to carry out this guarantee.

These other legal claims can help an injured party secure damages. The only downside is that the claim may be a little harder to make out: strict liability concerns whether or not the producer took care to avoid a defect. In contrast, negligence and warranty law focuses more on what action the producer actually took.

Source: rdmag.com, "3-D printing creates murky product liability issues," Dec. 13, 2013

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