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Tipping Points: A Manufacturer’s Duty to Produce Safe Products

Is the recall of 29 million dressers, a $50 million settlement, and $250,000 in donations to hospitals and charities enough? That’s the question three families and furniture manufacturer/distributer IKEA are left to reflect upon in the wake of a two day mediation to settle the wrongful death claims for three young boys, all just two years of age.

In three separate instances, an IKEA dresser toppled-over and tragically took the life of a young child. The families of the three children joined together in a lawsuit against IKEA, claiming the design of dressers rendered them inherently unstable and prone to tip-overs. Ultimately, the lawsuit sought to answer whether or not IKEA, as the designer and manufacturer of the dressers, had a responsibility to prevent these disasters.

Deadly Product or Consumer Error?

In the lawsuit filed on behalf of the deceased children, the families alleged that IKEA consistently declined to meet the voluntary U.S. national safety standards for stability of dressers and chests requiring that a dresser/chest unit resist tipping-over when a drawer is extended and 50 pounds of weight is applied, which may have prevented the fatal tip-overs. While these safety standards were technically voluntary, the fact that the American furniture industry had adopted and implemented these safety standards was noted by the families. More egregious than IKEA’s failure to meet the voluntary safety standards, was the families’ assertion that IKEA was aware of other deaths and injuries due to tip overs and still refused to recall or redesign the potentially dangerous furniture.

Surprising many legal experts, IKEA maintained a somewhat defiant stance at first, pointing the finger at the families for failing to follow the instructions included with the dressers. While the company did offer its condolences to the aggrieved families, IKEA countered claims that the design of the dressers rendered them unstable by asserting that the dressers were never meant to be free standing and instead were meant to be “anchored” to a wall for support. According to IKEA, the fault belonged to the families who failed to follow the instructions included with the dressers and anchor the dressers to a wall.

Who bears the responsibility for the deaths caused by the dresser tip-overs in this scenario? IKEA, the manufacturer who declined to meet the industry safety standards and may have been aware of a dangerous and potentially deadly problem? The families who did not follow the instructions included with the dresser? These questions belong to an area of law known as “Products Liability,” which establishes remedies against manufacturers of products for personal injuries.

Products Liability

First and foremost, it is important to keep in mind that products liability laws differ from state to state. Due to the states’ varying laws and the fact that every case requires an independent evaluation of its specifics, it is important to consult with an experienced and reputable attorney to evaluate your legal options.

Generally speaking, in order prove a manufacturer is responsible for the damage caused by their product, it must be shown that the damage was caused by an “unreasonably dangerous” characteristic of the product during a “reasonably anticipated use.”

“Reasonably Anticipated Use” of a Product

Typically, manufacturers are responsible only for damage caused by their product which arises from a “reasonably anticipated use” of the product. The term “reasonably anticipated use” does not necessarily mean “intended use,” instead it means that the product was used in a way that could reasonably be anticipated by the manufacturer at the time the product left the manufacturer’s control or through alteration of the product that could be reasonably anticipated.

For example, the manufacturer of a hatchet can reasonably anticipate that a consumer may use the blunt end of the hatchet to hammer in nails, even though that is not its intended use. However, the manufacturer of a hatchet likely cannot reasonably anticipate that people will play catch with the hatchet. The hatchet’s manufacturer may be responsible for damages caused by the hatchet in the first example because hammering nails is likely a reasonably anticipated use and will likely bear no responsibility in the second example because it is not reasonable to anticipate that a consumer will play catch with a hatchet.

“Unreasonably Dangerous” Characteristic of a Product

Next, the product must typically possess a characteristic that is “unreasonably dangerous” when used in a reasonably anticipated way. A few non-exclusive unreasonably dangerous characteristics are (1) the construction or composition of a product, (2) the actual design of a product, (3) failing to warn or inadequate warning, and/or (4) breach of a manufacturer’s express warranty about a product.

A product’s construction or composition is unreasonably dangerous when it contains a defect that deviates from identical products at the time it leaves the manufacturer’s control. The classic example of a product that is unreasonably dangerous in its construction or composition is the exploding soda bottle. A single soda bottle, despite being produced at the same plant as identical soda bottles, explodes and causes damage. For whatever reason, this soda bottle contained a defect that deviated from identical soda bottles produced at the same plant. In this example the soda bottle’s manufacturer would be responsible for the damages due to the fact the soda bottle was unreasonably dangerous in its construction or composition.

Applicable to the IKEA case, a product’s design is unreasonably dangerous when an alternative design that could have prevented the damage existed at the time the product left the manufacturer’s control. The IKEA case provides a perfect example, as alternative “tip-resistant” designs existed at the time the dressers left IKEA’s control. Moreover, the families of the deceased children even pointed out that IKEA declined to follow the voluntary safety standards for the stability of dressers/chests, which may have prevented the damage/deaths. While these factors must be balanced against other factors (such as the economic utility of the product) to determine whether the design is unreasonably dangerous, the families likely had a very compelling case that the design of IKEA’s dressers was unreasonably dangerous.

Also applicable to the IKEA case, a product may be unreasonably dangerous due to a failure to warn or inadequate warning. Manufacturers have a duty to warn of potentially dangerous characteristics or uses of a product. Simply including a warning about a dangerous characteristic or use of a product does not necessarily release the manufacturer of responsibility for damage caused by the dangerous characteristic/use. The warning must be adequate, both in terms of content and placement. Placing a long detailed warning in the back of an instructions manual may not qualify as an adequate warning because many people do not read long detailed warnings, much less the instruction manual. Accordingly, IKEA’s instructions may have also qualified as either a failure to warn or an inadequate warning (depending on the contents) because many people do not read the instructions and simply assume that dressers do not need to be anchored to a wall.

Finally, a product is unreasonably dangerous if the manufacturer makes an express warranty about the product to which the product does not conform. An example of breach of a manufacturer’s express warranty is if a consumer buys a blender based on the manufacturer’s claim that it can blend rocks into dust. When the consumer attempts to blend rocks the blender breaks and shoots rocks all over the consumer’s kitchen, causing substantial damage. The manufacturer in this case will be responsible due to the fact that it made an express warranty about the blender to which the blender does not conform.

The Tipping Point

IKEA first attempted to address the dresser stability issue by offering free wall anchor kits to owners of its furniture, which was dismissed as insufficient by many because of the fact many owners were unaware that a tip-over problem even existed. Indeed this step proved inadequate as less than a year later another child was killed when an unanchored IKEA dresser tipped-over on top of him. Soon thereafter IKEA issued a recall of 29 million chests and dressers in the United States, one of the most comprehensive recalls in U.S. history, and settled with the families of the deceased toddlers. As part of the settlement, in addition to the damages paid to the families and the donations made to hospitals and charities, IKEA agreed to only sell dressers and chests in the U.S. that meet or exceed the voluntary safety standards as well as to increase funding for its program aimed to raise awareness of the risk of tip-overs.

However, IKEA is not the lone furniture manufacturer dealing with tip-overs, as chillingly noted by both the Consumer Product Safety Commission and IKEA. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, on average a child is killed once every two weeks in furniture tip-over accidents. Additionally, nearly 40,000 people, the majority being children under 5 years old, are sent to the emergency room every year for injuries caused by furniture tip-overs. While injuries and deaths due to furniture tip-overs remains a problem, the IKEA settlement is a step in the right direction.

CONTACT AN EXPERIENCED PRODUCTS LIABILITY AND PERSONAL INJURY ATTORNEY TODAY

Herman, Herman & Katz LLC has broad experience in products liability as well as personal injury cases. If you have suffered an injury or damages due to unstable furniture or other products and are considering filing a personal injury and/or products liability claim, contact an experienced personal injury and products liability lawyer first. Herman, Herman & Katz, LLC can advise you of your legal rights and work closely with you to develop a strategy for your claim. Our clients benefit from our years of combined experience, and so can you. Schedule a consultation now at 844-285-0267 or fill out our online contact form with your questions.



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