What is “breach of warranty” in a products liability case?

In a case involving products liability, a person who is injured by a consumer product may argue in court he was injured because he relied on certain promises, or warranties, the manufacturer or seller made but that turned out not to be true.

For example, suppose that an injured plaintiff buys a small electric-powered chainsaw at a manufacturer’s outlet store. The chainsaw’s instruction manual states that the chainsaw may be used to carve Thanksgiving turkeys. However, when the buyer tries to use the chainsaw on his own Thanksgiving turkey, the chainsaw cuts through not only the turkey but also the platter and the table before landing on the buyer’s foot, injuring him. The buyer may be able to hold the manufacturer liable for breach of warranty because the manufacturer promised that the chainsaw was safe to use on turkeys, when in fact it was far too powerful for safe turkey-carving.

In products liability cases, a breach of warranty claim can be based on either an express warranty or an implied warranty. An express warranty is one that is explicitly stated from the manufacturer or seller to the consumer. Although most express warranties are made in written statements, an advertisement or a product sample that demonstrate the product being used in a certain way may also be express warranties that the product is safe to use in that way.

For instance, in the example above, the written statement in the instruction manual that says the chainsaw may safely be used on Thanksgiving turkeys is an express warranty. Even if this statement had not appeared in the manual, however, the injured buyer may have a claim for breach of express warranty if a commercial for the chainsaw claimed it was good for carving turkeys, or if a salesperson had given the buyer a demonstration of how to carve a turkey with the chainsaw. To prove this claim in court, the injured buyer would have to show that he had relied on the ad or the demonstration when he decided to use the chainsaw to carve his own turkey.

An implied warranty, on the other hand, is not explicitly stated. Instead, an implied warranty is based on the reasonable expectations of the buyer. Most U.S. courts recognize two different types of implied warranty: the implied warranty of merchantability and the implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose.

An implied warranty of merchantability simply means that the product being sold is “sellable,” or that it will do what products of its kind generally do without injuring or killing anyone. For example, when a shopper buys a bag of apples, she assumes that she will be able to eat the apples without breaking her teeth or getting poisoned, since people generally buy apples in order to eat them. Similarly, if a shopper buys a toaster, he assumes that it will toast bread without setting his house on fire, since this is what toasters should do.

Some manufacturers or sellers may attempt to get around the implied warranty of merchantability by selling a product “as is” or “with all faults.” However, not all U.S. states allow manufacturers or sellers to escape liability merely by labeling every product with these terms.

The implied warranty of merchantability attaches to nearly all sales of consumer goods between a manufacturer or seller and a buyer. The implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose, on the other hand, only applies when the buyer relies on the manufacturer or seller to choose the proper product for the buyer’s needs, but the manufacturer or seller does not do so.

For example, suppose that a buyer visits a computer store. He doesn’t know much about computer specifics, but he does know that he wants a computer that has the hardware and software to create, edit, and distribute videos. He explains his needs to the technicians at the store, then asks them to build him an appropriate computer. Instead of building him a computer that can handle video editing, however, the computer technicians give the buyer  a stripped-down machine that can only run a word processor.

In this case, the buyer may be able to prove that the computer store breached the implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose, because the buyer relied on the technicians’ expertise to produce a computer that was appropriate for video editing , but the computer he received was not fit for that particular purpose. (To succeed in court, the buyer will also have to prove that getting the wrong computer resulted in damages. For instance, the buyer may suffer damage if he loses a client because he couldn’t finish the client’s video project on time due to having the wrong sort of computer.)

Not every case in which a product injures a person will result in a breach of warranty claim, however. In most U.S. states, an injured plaintiff can only sue a defendant for breach of warranty if the plaintiff and defendant are in “privity,” meaning that they are both parties to the same contract. For example, if a buyer purchases a product directly from the manufacturer, he may be able to sue for breach of warranty if he is injured, because the buyer and the manufacturer were both parties to the sales contract. However, if a buyer buys a product from a secondhand store, he may not be able to sue the manufacturer for breach of warranty because the manufacturer was not involved in that sale.

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