Product liability: How to sue a supplier for a defective product

When you’re busy running your business, you might not automatically think about what would happen if you sold a customer a faulty product. Luckily Bionic have put together a guide about how to hold the right individual or company responsible for a defective product.

What is a defective product?

Simply put, a product is defective when it doesn’t work as it’s intended to. If the product risks damage to a person’s property or has the potential to cause serious injury or death to the user, it is labelled defective.

Certain circumstances should be considered when thinking about if a product is defective. These include:

  1. How the product has been marketed — Was the item marketed in such a way to get people to buy but doesn’t mention any dangers or warnings on the packaging?
  2. The item’s external appearance — Have any seals been broken to make it defective or dangerous?
  3. Any warnings — Is the product dangerous because the customer has used it in the wrong way or because there were no clear instructions on the packaging?
  4. When the item was supplied — For example, if the item is a food or drink product, was it out of date and should have been consumed before it hit the shelves?
  5. Use of trademarks — Are there any brands associated with the item and do they know about possible defects?
  6. What might reasonably be done with the product — Is there any way the supplier, manufacturer or seller could have reasonably predicted danger when using the product?

In the UK, product liability laws are in place to protect consumers and make sure goods are as safe as can be. If someone is injured by a defective product, they can sue the producers, manufacturers, distributors or in some cases, all parties involved.

woman looking at smoke coming out of her broken microwave in her kitchen

What can be a defective product?

A defective product can be anything a customer buys or is supplied with that is faulty. A lot of the time, manufacturers recognise when a product is defective because they are made aware of a problem. They can then mass recall the item and correct the issue.

You often see this in supermarkets when there may be an allergen present that isn’t listed on the original packet or if there is an outbreak of salmonella in the meat they are selling.

Essentially, anything can be a defective product, but the following are the most common: 

  • Drugs and medicine
  • Food and lifestyle supplements
  • Electrical products
  • Sporting goods
  • Vehicles

Who is liable for a defective product?

Responsibility usually lies with the manufacturer of the item rather than the supplier or the seller. But, if more than one business is part of the production of the item, they can all be liable for the defect. These are the main parties involved in the production of a product, faulty or not:

Laws in the UK ensure there are strict rules for manufacturers to follow and consequences if they are found to have produced defective items.

This means customers who are injured by defective products can sue and they may not even have to prove the manufacturer was negligent, only that the product was defective.

Who can sue and be sued?

There are a few different people who can be sued because of a faulty product and the law is generally the same when dealing with each of them. Defendants —the company or individual being sued — can be held accountable in a legal ‘product liability’ case.

If you’re a business owner and are looking to sue your supplier for a faulty item, it’s a good idea to figure out your supply chain to see who might be responsible.

Manufacturer

The manufacturer is at the start of the production chain and the company may range in size from a big corporation to an individual working from home or a small rented space. They manufacture the goods and send them out to suppliers and shops.

Retailer

Although the shop or business that sold the faulty product didn't manufacture it, the retailer may still be held accountable for a defective product.

Wholesaler or Distributor

Other than the manufacturers and retailers, there are often wholesalers, suppliers and distributors involved in the sale of a product, defective or not. These ‘middlemen’ can also be sued in a liable case.

How long are product producers liable for?

Product producers of faulty items are only liable for three years from the date of injury or incident.

However, since the injured customer might develop issues later or damage may not be apparent straight away, sometimes the law uses a three-year period from the date when the defendant could reasonably have known of the liable claim.

Additionally, a customer or a business has ten years after the product initially entered circulation to make a claim.

What happens if several people have been injured by my product?

If several people have been injured by a product of yours, they are all entitled to make a claim against you and whoever else is involved (e.g the manufacturer or the distributor.)

It’s important to note that someone injured by your product could claim individually, or several people might group together to put themselves in a stronger position. In some cases, it might be better for them to club together financially or build a stronger case against you with more people coming forward with claims.

If you have a claim made against you as a business, you must come up with a clear defence or provide a valid reason why you should not be held responsible.

Can a retailer be held liable for defective products?

Yes, a retailer can be held liable for a defective product. Under the ‘Consumer Protection Act’, manufacturers, distributors, suppliers and retailers can be held responsible for damage, injury or death caused by their defective items.

Each case is different, it just depends on how many companies or individuals are involved, if they have reasonable defences and if they could have potentially known about the dangers of the item.

What are the defences to a product liability claim?

There are a few common defences used by producers, manufacturers and businesses. These include:

  • The business did not supply the product - For example, if the item had been stolen and sold on without the business’ knowledge, this could be a defence.
  • The product was defective, but it had to be to comply with EU regulations - A product may have been required by EU law to be changed to fit in with rules and regulations.
  • The defect did not exist when the product was supplied - There is always the potential for a product to turn faulty. If it happened after the customer bought it then the business can argue that the defect didn’t exist at the time of sale.
  • The producer could not have been expected to discover the defect at the time - Sometimes defects develop and there is no way for the producer or seller to have known about them.

How can Bionic help your business get organised?

Juggling the everyday running of your business and keeping up to speed with important things like product liability can be tough. Our business insurance team can help with product liability insurance and other cover that could be vital for your business, including public liability insurance, employer's liability insurance, and more. 

Our tech-enabled team can also help with a range of other business essentials, including business energy, phone and broadband, VoIP, and business loans. We just need your business postcode to run a comparison.