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New legal rules may apply to defective product from 3-D printing

As the New Year approaches it's appropriate to discuss the legal impact of emerging technologies that may change some of the legal underpinnings of product liability law in the future. A fascinating but still-speculative process known as 3-D printing may ultimately make a sea-change in the way products are made and delivered to the public. If so, when a consumer is injured by a defective product the current law of strict liability may not apply in West Virginia or other states.

In that event, the negligence standard may be found to be more appropriate. Strict liability generally requires only that a defect in the product be proved, and of course that the defect caused injury to the end user. The issue of carefulness or due care under the circumstances are not necessary to prove a case.

With the revolutionary scope of new technology, some of the legal principles underlying our jurisprudence are bound to change. Furthermore, it's a bedrock of our legal system that legal theory will change and evolve to accommodate the changing needs and values of society. With 3-D printing technology, a substantial change is being implemented.

The 3-D printing process allows for the production of a three-dimensional consumer item from a robot-like machine that may be set up in an individual's home or office. Under the direction of a digital model designed in a software program, the 3-D printer adds layers of fabric, material or other physical matter to produce a three-dimensional solid object. To the extent that this process remains a part of an industrial mass-production and marketing framework, the law of strict liability will likely remain applicable.

But where a small business or hobbyist in West Virginia or another state produces one object at a time the commercial context is lost and the need to protect consumers for a defective product on a mass basis also is no longer necessary. It's a fascinating topic for pondering the miracles that future technology promises. For the foreseeable future, however, strict liability will continue to be the main legal theory that protects consumers from dangerously defective products.

Source: Stanford News, 3-D printing creates product liability issues, Stanford scholar says, Clifton B. Parker, Dec. 12, 2013

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