Liability for “Design Defects” in California

California's products liability laws let plaintiffs recover for injuries from design defects -- even when there was no negligence on the part of the product's designer or manufacturer.

To help you better understand liability for design defects in California, our California personal injury lawyers discuss, below:

You may also wish to review our article on "manufacturing defects" in California products liability cases

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1. The legal definition of a “design defect” under California law

In California, a product is defective in design if either:

  • The product has failed to perform as safely as an ordinary consumer would expect when used in an intended or reasonably foreseeable manner, or
  • The benefits of the design do not outweigh the risk of danger inherent in such design.1

The two tests are not mutually exclusive – they are alternative theories. Either or both may apply in a given case and be presented to the jury.2

In either case, California law imposes “strict liability” for a design defect.

This means the plaintiff does not need to prove that the defendant was negligent – only that a design defect caused the plaintiff's injuries when the plaintiff used (or even misused) the product in a reasonably foreseeable manner.

1.1. The “consumer expectation” test

A design is defective if a product fails to perform as safely as an ordinary consumer would expect when used in an intended or reasonably foreseeable manner.3

The test may be used if the product is one within the common experience of ordinary, reasonable consumers, taking into account:

  • The plaintiff's use of the product;
  • The circumstances surrounding the injury; and
  • The objective features of the product which are relevant to an evaluation of its safety."4

To prove liability under the consumer expectations test a plaintiff must prove four “elements”:

  1. That the defendant manufactured/distributed/sold the product;
  2. That the product did not perform as safely as an ordinary consumer would have expected it to perform when used or misused in an intended or reasonably foreseeable way;
  3. That the plaintiff was harmed; and
  4. That the product's failure to perform safely was a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff's harm.5

1.2. The “risk / benefit” test

Under the “risk / benefit” test a plaintiff need only show that the defendant designed a product and the product caused the plaintiff's injury.

The burden then shifts to the defendant to prove that, on balance, the benefits of the challenged design outweigh the risk of danger inherent in such design.6

Factors the jury may consider in evaluating whether the benefits of a design outweigh the dangers include:

  • The gravity of the potential harm resulting from the use of the product;
  • The likelihood that this harm would occur;
  • The feasibility of an alternative safer design at the time of manufacture;
  • The cost of an alternative design;
  • The disadvantages of an alternative design; and
  • Any other relevant factors.7

2. How long do I have to sue for a design defect in California?

California's statute of limitations for personal injuries applies to design defects. It gives a plaintiff two years to sue for injuries resulting from a defective product.8

Under California's "discovery rule," the two-year period starts to run when the plaintiff knows – or in the exercise of reasonable diligence should have known -- of both the injury and its relation to the product.9

Our California products liability attorneys can help determine when the two-year California limitations period expires.

3. Will I need an expert witness to prove the product was defective?

It is not always necessary to call an expert witness in a California products liability case. For instance, when Samsung's Galaxy Note 7 phone batteries were catching on fire, it did not take expert testimony to tell people that shouldn't happen.

In many cases, however, expert testimony is needed in order to:

  • Establish that a design defect was the reason the plaintiff was injured;
  • Prove that a product could have been designed more safely; or
  • Prove damages such as lost earning capacity.

Injured by a defective product? Call us for help…

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If you or someone you know was injured by dangerous product in California, we invite you to contact us for a free consultation.

Call us at (855) JUSTICE to discuss your design defect, inadequate warning defect or manufacturing defect case with one of our California products liability lawyers.

If you were injured because of a design defect in Nevada, you may wish to see our article on “dangerous products in Nevada.”


Legal references:

  1. Barker v. Lull Engineering Co. (1978) 20 Cal.3d 413.
  2. McCabe v. American Honda Motor Co. (2002) 100 Cal. App. 4th 1111; Bracisco v. Beech Aircraft Corp. (1984) 159 Cal.App.3d 1101.
  3. Saller v. Crown Cork (2010) 187 Cal.App.4th 1220. See also the warranty of fitness and merchantability under California Commercial Code 2314.
  4. Campbell v. General Motors Corp. (1982) 32 Cal. 3d 112; Pannu v. Land Rover North America, Inc. (2011) 191 Cal.App.4th 1298.
  5. California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 1203 (Strict Liability - Design Defect - Consumer Expectation Test).
  6. Barker, endnote 1.
  7. Same. See also CACI 1204.
  8. California Code of Civil Procedure 335.1.
  9. See e.g., Jolly v. Eli Lilly Co. (1988) 44 Cal.3d 1103; Tucker v. Baxter Healthcare Corporation (9th Cir. 1998) 158 F.3d 1046. 

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