In many product liability cases, the plaintiff alleges that a design defect was responsible for the injuries incurred. For example, in a product liability case alleging that a car’s gas tank exploded in rear-end collisions, the plaintiff would allege that the car was defectively designed. In these types of cases, some courts have established a “reasonable design alternative” test. Under this test, a product is defective in design when the foreseeable risks of harm posed by the product could have been reduced or avoided by the adoption of a reasonable alternative design by the seller or other distributor and the omission of the alternative design renders the product not reasonably safe.
Under the reasonable design alternative test, the plaintiff has the burden of demonstrating the existence of an alternative design at the time the manufacturer designed the product. The test does not, however; require the plaintiff to produce a prototype in order to make out a design defect case. Instead, qualified expert testimony on the issue suffices, even though an expert has produced no prototype, if it reasonably supports the conclusion that a reasonable alternative design could have been practically adopted at the time of sale. In addition, other products already available on the market that serves the same or very similar function at lower risk and at comparable cost may serve as reasonable alternatives to the product in question.
How a plaintiff goes about establishing a reasonable alternative design varies from state to state. In some states, a plaintiff can meet the requirements of the test by introducing evidence that the product in question failed to perform as safely as an ordinary consumer would expect when used in an intended or reasonably foreseeable manner. Other states merely require plaintiffs to introduce evidence that the product’s design proximately caused the injury and put the burden on the defendant to prove that on balance, the benefits of the challenged design outweigh the risk of danger inherent in the design.
Critics of the reasonable design alternative test argue that the test removes the element of strict liability from the law of product liability, thus limiting consumers’ ability to recover against manufacturers. In jurisdictions that have not adopted the reasonable alternative design test, plaintiffs only need to show that the injury-causing product was unsafe or unfit for its intended or foreseeable use at the time it left the manufacturer’s control and that the injuries sustained arose from the unsafe or unfit condition of the product. Proponents of the test claim that increasing plaintiffs’ burden of proof in product liability actions will limit frivolous suits against manufacturers.