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The Danger of Damage Caps

Product liability law has long served a warning system alerting consumers to dangerous products and initiating necessary changes in various industries. When an individual is seriously hurt by a flawed or defective product, her claim against the manufacturer seeks fair compensation for her injuries. Additionally, investigations conducted by the attorneys litigating her case may serve to shed light on systemic failures on the part of a manufacturer that led to her injury. Alerting manufacturers to design and other defects gives them the chance to properly compensate the victim in a particular case and to make changes to protect against future injuries. Moreover, the impassioned advocacy, expertise, and independence of product liability attorneys are vital to ensuring that changes in reluctant industries are actually made, and product liability litigation can alert the public and regulatory agencies to widespread dangers.

A recent article in the New York Times suggests that caps on noneconomic damages reduce the effectiveness of the alarm system that is product liability law. The article recounts the story of an 18-year-old girl who was killed when she lost control of her vehicle. Suspiciously, the vehicle's airbags failed to deploy and preliminary findings indicated that the failure may have been the result of a product defect.

When the deceased girl's parents reached out to a prominent law firm for assistance, they were shocked that the firm declined to take the case due to Wisconsin's caps on damages. The law firm explained that the extreme cost of litigating against a major automotive manufacturer is simply too high given Wisconsin's $350,000 cap on recovery for loss of society.

In this case, caps on noneconomic damages did more than prevent the injured families from receiving fair compensation for their injuries. Caps actually kept the injured parties from securing representation. This outcome potentially slowed the discovery and public knowledge of a widespread life-threatening defect. Tellingly, the article notes the litigation dealing with this issue that eventually helped bring about a 2.2 million vehicle recall came about in a state without strict caps on damages.

Unfortunately for Ohioans, Ohio has in place inflexible caps on damages affecting a variety of injured parties. These caps greatly impair the ability of product liability attorneys in Ohio to take on complex cases against powerful interests. Products liability attorneys, like any regulating body, must utilize resources in discovering defects and unsafe practices. Attorneys exert resources to investigate complex cases, and it is unrealistic to expect clients to have the resources to pay for litigation out-of-pocket. In a world of underfunded and even incompetent regulatory agencies, it is troubling to think that caps on noneconomic damages may simply rule out litigation as a viable option in redressing individual injury and in bringing wider consumer attention to defective products.