According to the law, all products sold to consumers in the UK must be safe. Responsibility for the safety of consumer products, along with related issues, is referred to as product liability. Determining the required safety standards for a particular product, along with deciding who is liable for any safety failings in the supply chain, are some of the issues involved in product liability.
Businesses which produce, distribute or sell products to consumers are all responsible, to varying degrees, for the safety of these products. Understanding where responsibilities lie is crucial for all parties involved.
What is product liability?
What are the responsibilities of producers, distributors and sellers?
The main liability for product safety falls on producers, who include:
businesses that supply own-brand products
businesses that change the safety of a product (eg by customising or servicing it)
Producers should take measures to ensure that products are safe by:
warning consumers about any potential risks and providing relevant information
monitoring the safety of products and taking appropriate action if any problems are found
It is common for multiple different businesses to be jointly involved in the production of a product (eg various manufacturers supply parts and components to another manufacturer to create a finished product from all of the parts), and they can be held jointly liable for any harm caused by the finished product (subject to the reasons for the safety failing).
Distributors and sellers
Shops and wholesalers which identify the producer of a product, which is later deemed to be unsafe or causes harm to a consumer, are generally not deemed to be liable for the safety failings or consequent harm. However, if they knowingly or negligently sell products which are unsafe, they can also be held liable and face litigation or enforcement action.
Who is responsible for safety?
Producers have the primary responsibility for product safety. However, distributors and sellers can be held liable if they sell a product which they know (or should know) is not safe.
What are the implications of failings?
Consumers who are harmed by an unsafe product can sue the producer - even if they did not purchase the product themselves (eg it was bought as a present). As well as seeking compensation in respect of injury or death, consumers can sue for damage to private property if the cost of damage amounts to at least £275.
In addition to compensation for consumers, enforcement authorities (eg Trading Standards) can take action against businesses which are manufacturing or selling unsafe goods, to prevent further sales and or instigate product recalls, with penalties including fines and imprisonment.
What are the defences?
There are six main defences to product liability claims:
The product was stolen or fraudulent (eg a fake copy).
It was not reasonable to foresee the safety fault (eg based upon current scientific consensus).
The safety fault was a result of a legal obligation.
Fault was caused subsequent to the supply of product (eg due to third party modification).
The product was not supplied in the course of business (however, this does not cover the situation where a product is purchased by a consumer who subsequently gifts this to someone else).
Component manufacturers cannot be held liable if their components were not at fault (eg if the fault was caused by the way a producer implemented components to create a product).
For further information on product liability, read Product liability and safety law.