Richard Burke, a partner at Clifford Law Offices, has a great deal of experience in the area of product liability law in sorting through complex cases that involve when something goes wrong with a product. Which can be anything from unsafe BBQ lighters to children’s games. He spends much of time handling motor vehicle liability cases involving rollovers of SUV’s that can be caused by defects in tires, seats and airbags. Rich was an Assistant State’s Attorney in Cook County for 12 years before joining Clifford Law Offices more that 20 years ago.
Question: What is a product liability case?
Rich: A product liability case is a claim that arises as a result of a condition in a product that has rendered that product defective and it makes the product unreasonably dangerous. Basically there are three categories by which a product can be deemed to be unreasonably dangerous. That can occur either as a result of a manufacturing defect that gives rise to a defective condition in a single product purchased by a consumer, or secondly there can be a defect in the design of a product that gives rise to an entire category of products as deemed dangerous, and thirdly, a product can be considered to be unreasonably dangerous as a result of being sold to consumers with inadequate warnings about the risks of the product and the inherent dangers, or without providing proper instruction to the consumer as to how to safely use the product.
Question: What types of products are involved in product liability cases?
Rich: Probably every conceivable type of product that any average consumer comes into contact with has the potential to be the subject of a product liability case. Unfortunately, almost any type of product can end up with a design that renders it unreasonably dangerous. We frequently see at Clifford Law Offices defects in the design of motor vehicles, sport utility vehicles, trucks, and passenger cars. With respect to defects in the design of vehicles, they may encompass the seat backs, the seat belts and deficiencies in the strength of the roof design. We also see products such as children’s games that have toy pieces that are simply too small to safely be used by children. I’ve seen children’s games where the pieces disintegrate the minute it is put in a child’s mouth. The parts start unraveling and the child can swallow them. We see and handle cases involving defects in component parts of aircraft, household appliances and inadequate wiring that give rise to fires. Factory equipment such as conveyor belts that don’t have emergency shut-off switches and barbeque lighters with inadequate safety guards have caused serious injuries to our clients. Virtually, every conceivable type of product unfortunately sometimes can be put on the market with an unsafe design that renders it unreasonably dangerous.
Question: Can you provide us with a few examples of the types of product liability cases that you handle?
Rich: I just alluded to children’s games a moment ago, and those are ones that I find terribly tragic because it’s very unsuspecting for parents and obviously for a young child, but I had a case not too long ago that we successfully resolved, in which there were component parts of a building-block type game that were swallowed and were a size that could be easily swallowed. The minute that the game piece ended up in the digestive track of the child, it disintegrated and ended up causing blockages in the child’s intestinal system, giving rise to emergency surgery and future injuries concerning the functioning of her digestive track. We see those types of cases. We see defective cribs with side-rails that can come down without any notice. As I mentioned, we handle a lot of cases involving motor vehicles and sport utility vehicles. A lot of times, when a vehicle rolls over, it ends up on its roof and the roof crashes or caves in, coming into contact with the occupant. The minute there is contact between the roof and the occupant’s head, that can often give rise to brain injury or compression of the spinal cord, or fractures to the spinal cord which result in paralysis and quadriplegia. A lot of times we see tires that blow because they have not been designed and manufactured properly with appropriate liners to withstand the riggers of being out in either very hot weather or very cold weather. A moment ago, I referred to barbeque lighters. We’ve unfortunately seen cases where children have been burned because a young sibling has literally been able to activate the lighter and those are very sad and unfortunate types of cases. I am handling a case right now involving a woman who was very severely injured when her car came into contact with the back of a semi-tractor trailer. As a lot of your listeners may realize, when they are on the road, if they look at the back of a semi-tractor trailer, they all have what’s known as a rear-impact guard that comes down at the very back of the vehicle. That bar is designed to prevent a car from riding underneath the trailer. Unfortunately, we have instances where those rear-impact guards actually fail because they haven’t been designed with a strong enough system of screws and bolts to keep them in place, and the minute it fails, that allows the vehicle to under-ride the trailer. So, all of those types of defective products can give rise to some very tragic occurrences, and very severe and permanent injuries to our clients.