Total Eclipse of the Tort – Negligence claims for defective products

The high desert of Oregon glowed a golden yellow in the morning sun.  The air was electric.  It was August 21, 2017 and I was in the zone of totality: a 117-km-wide strip of land stretching across the continental US where the mid-day sun would get completely blocked out by the moon.

With my pair of eclipse glasses, I watched as the moon slowly crept over the sun.  In the final moments, the colours around me dulled.  Then the light dimmed.  The temperature plummeted.  Night quickly descended on the desert.  And then the unimaginable: the brilliant glare of the sun vanished suddenly and gave way to a perfectly round silhouette of our moon.  It was majestic and surreal.  Looking out of place and eerily close, our moon was cast against the white energy that is the sun’s corona.

For two minutes, everyone was captured in awe.  We gasped, cheered, and laughed.  Then, the moon crawled just one step more and unveiled an indescribable blast of energy from the sun.  Everyone scrambled to put their eclipse glasses back on.

On the drive home, my mind turned to those protective glasses.  The media had reported on how dangerous it was to watch a solar eclipse without them.  The entire eclipse lasted three hours but just a few seconds of unprotected viewing could permanently damage your vision.  In that moment, there is no way of knowing whether your eyes had been damaged.  It would be only be discovered hours or days later.

I thought of the rumours of defective or “fake” glasses being sold and what if my glasses were defective? Had I damaged my eyesight?  In hindsight, I had placed a lot of faith in a pair of cheap-looking cardboard glasses that I found in a gas station the night before.

Defective goods are dealt with in the area of product liability.  I wrote about this once when debunking the mythical lawsuit of the McDonald’s coffee spill.  This area of law places responsibilities on businesses to ensure their goods are reasonably safe.  It gives consumers a way to claim damages if they are injured from goods that aren’t.

In BC, a manufacturer can be found negligent for a defective product in various ways.  It can negligently   design or make its products and negligently fail to warn its customers of the dangers of using its products.  It is no accident that my pair of eclipse glasses had a simple and clear warning about how to use (and not use) them.  It is why our coffee cups say “caution – hot” or why the label on your hockey helmet points out the inherent risk of concussions in the sport.

What would amount to a manufacturer’s negligent design, production, or warning?  That depends on the circumstances.  In general, the more serious the risk of harm, the more a manufacturer expected to take steps to prevent it.  Specifically, the courts consider the probability and the seriousness of the likely injury.  Other factors include the public’s expectations of safety standards and a reasonable person’s understanding of risks that come with using the product.   And even if a manufacturer has negligently designed or manufactured a product or failed to provide a proper warning, the consumer still has  prove that the negligence caused their injury.

Let us return to the scenario of the solar eclipse.  If a pair of eclipse glasses was defective, the consumer probably would not know until it was too late.  If they sued for any injury they suffered because of the defective glasses, the court would consider how likely and severe the injury was and that the consumer had little chance to avoid the injury despite using the glasses as they were designed. If the glasses did not provide the expected protection, the court could very well find that the manufacturer liable in negligence.

In contrast, if someone damaged their eyes because they watched the eclipse with a pair of sunglasses, a claim for damages would not succeed because using sunglasses, which are not designed for eclipse-viewing was not reasonable.

Product liability law protects consumers from defective products. Whether we are talking about kitchen appliances, sporting equipment, or car parts, manufacturers must ensure that their products are reasonably safe.  When they do not, they face damage claims, including  class actions for negligence that harms people on a large scale.