West Virginia's Basic Product Liability Principles

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More than 31 years ago, in the case of Morningstar v. Black and Decker Manufacturing Company, the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia answered "the question of the extent to which a manufacturer of a defective product is liable in tort in this State to a person injured by such product." In reaching the answer to that question, the Supreme Court discussed the history of product liability law in great detail and ultimately established legal principles which have withstood the test of time. In fact, the principles of product liability law established for West Virginia in the Morningstar case remain valid to this day.

In recognition of the breadth of the question, the Court acknowledged that it could not "formulate a solution for every problem that may arise in future product liability cases. [The focus will be] on the nature of the defect and whether the defect was the proximate cause of plaintiff's injury. We recognize that a defective product may fall into three broad, and not necessarily mutually exclusive, categories: design defectiveness; structural defectiveness; and use defectiveness arising out of the lack of, or the inadequacy of, warnings, instructions and labels." In defining a "defective product," the Court took somewhat of a middle ground. Rejecting the Section 402A Restatement, Second, Torts definition (which requires the defective condition to be unreasonably dangerous), the Court held that in West Virginia, a product is defective when "it is not reasonably safe for its intended use."

Noting that the phrase "strict liability in tort" (which is typically applied to these causes of action) can be misleading, the Court made it clear that West Virginia does "not impose absolute liability or make the manufacturer an insurer of his product. The cause of action covered by the term 'strict liability in tort' is designed to relieve the plaintiff from proving that the manufacturer was negligent in some particular fashion during the manufacturing process and to permit proof of the defective condition of the product as the principal basis of liability."

The Court also recognized the importance of expert witnesses in such cases. "In a product liability case, the expert witness is ordinarily the critical witness. He serves to set the applicable manufacturing, design, labeling and warning standards based on his experience and expertise in a given product field."

Steptoe & Johnson attorneys are experienced in product liability law, providing legal services to manufacturers and others in the chain of product distribution in our region. In upcoming Client Alerts, we will highlight principles of product liability law in Ohio and Kentucky.

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