Monday, November 8, 2021
Mark Geistfeld has posted to SSRN his contribution to the upcoming symposium on "The State of Tort Theory" in the Journal of Tort Law. Entitled Strict Products Liability 2.0: The Triumph of Judicial Reasoning over Mainstream Tort Theory, the abstract provides:
Strict products liability has evolved in a manner that is widely misunderstood. The liability rule was first formulated to govern defective products that did not minimally perform one of their ordinary functions as expected by consumers—a malfunction that violates the implied warranty of quality. After adopting this rule, courts began applying it to products that did not malfunction and found that a test for defect based on consumer expectations often is indeterminate or can otherwise unduly limit liability in an important class of cases. To address these problems, most courts adopted the risk-utility test, a form of cost-benefit analysis that functions like the negligence standard of reasonable care. Relying on these cases, the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability embraced the risk-utility test, jettisoned the consumer expectations test, and characterized strict products liability as a misleading label that perpetuates confusion about liability being strict when it instead is based on negligence. In response, a clear majority of courts have rejected this negligence-based framework and affirmed the continued vitality of strict products liability. Puzzled by this unexpected development, mainstream scholars claim that courts are confused by the rhetoric of strict products liability.
The prevailing scholarly opinion about this matter is confused; its fixation on negligence ignores the implied warranty rationale for strict products liability. Having been largely formulated as a rule of contract law, the implied warranty is under-theorized as a tort doctrine. Once adequately developed, the tort version of the implied warranty shows why courts have transformed the rule of strict products liability from the last century into a more comprehensive regime—“strict products liability 2.0”—that relies on consumer expectations to incorporate the risk-utility test into the framework of strict products liability. As compared to ordinary negligence liability, the implied warranty defines the safety problem in the normatively appropriate manner, thereby sharpening the inquiry about what’s at stake.
In dismissing this important development, mainstream tort theory relies on legal categories that fundamentally differ from the ones courts have used to develop strict products liability with analogical reasoning. Scholars have either resorted to overly general theories of tort liability or have otherwise focused on narrow doctrinal questions. By not engaging in the mid-level categorical theorizing required by analogical reasoning, the mainstream position could not see how this characteristic form of judicial reasoning has created the substantively sound regime of strict products liability 2.0.