In this age of endless lawsuits and litigation from everyone suing everyone else, one must ask the question “where does product liability end and consumer responsibility begin? ” This question has been further complicated by occurrences that stretch to the most far-reaching ends of this spectrum, the spectrum ranging from strict product liability of the company to complete consumer responsibility. On the strict product liability of the company side, we have the cigarette industry where the CEOs of the largest cigarette companies denied that their product was liable for the cause of addiction.
Almost all consumers know that the ingredient nicotine in cigarettes is addictive, due to extensive scientific testing and reports on this fact. What these CEO’s should have done was admit that they knew nicotine was addictive, and therefore made their product liable so as to give a fair warning to unknowing consumers. On the complete consumer responsibility side, we can examine the lawsuit where a man sued McDonald’s for over a million dollars because he spilled a cup of their coffee on his self and suffered burns.
He claimed that McDonald’s was liable because there was not a warning on the lid that stated that the coffee was hot. In my opinion, this lawsuit should have never happened. The consumer is attempting to alleviate all of the responsibility from himself for spilling his coffee and pass it on to the producer of the product. Frivolous lawsuits such as this, as well as companies failing to consider the importance of product liability, have resulted in an increasing annual product liability bill. Last year alone $4 billion was spent on product liability lawsuits and settlements (McAdams, p.
636). This staggering number suggests that maybe we need to reform our liability system. Ideally, we as a society would like to reach a happy medium between strict product liability of the company and complete consumer responsibility. If this occurred, lawsuits such as this would no longer drain our legal systems because an understanding would exist that the responsibility rests equally in both parties’ hands. However, that is an ideal situation, which rarely ever occurs in the real world. In the real world, tradeoffs must be made in order to reach equilibrium.
These tradeoffs between strict product liability and consumer responsibility will be discussed in light of the situation of Alejandro Phillips, as well as in correlation to new laws which have been passed regarding product liability and product liability lawsuits. To understand the case of Alejandro Phillips v. Columbia Pictures, it is very important to look at the arguments and points that can be made by both sides. First, I will examine the legal claims of Mr. Phillips. The main argument made by Mr. Phillips was that Columbia Pictures was negligent in how they marketed and advertised the movie Boyz N the Hood.
He argued that the movie’s advertising falsely represented the movie by depicting only the main scenes of violence and leaving out the pacifist themes at the heart of the movie. Mr. Phillips obviously believes that this false representation is what caused the violence that lead to him being shot outside the theatre at the showing of this movie. Now the question is whether or not Mr. Phillips’s arguments have any root in the legal realm. Can a company be held liable for leading consumers down the wrong path, whether intentionally or not? According to the verdict reached in Denny v.
Ford Motor Company, yes, “Ads and marketing materials can subject manufacturers to litigation and, ultimately, to liability” (Giliberti, p. 53). In this case, the Denny family was suing Ford because of a flipping incident that occurred in the Denny’s Bronco II while driving on normal roads. Ford argued that they were not liable because the Bronco II is supposed to be used primarily for off road driving. “In response, the Dennys introduced a Ford marketing manual predicting that many buyers would be attracted to the Bronco II because utility vehicles were ?
suitable to contemporary lifestyles’ and were ? considered fashionable’ in some suburban areas. According to this manual, the sales presentation of the Bronco II should take into account the vehicle’s ? suitability for commuting and for suburban and city driving'” (Giliberti, p. 54). The jury awarded the Dennys $1. 2 million, even though they concluded that the vehicle was not defective. They did, however, find that Ford had misled these consumers and by doing so, were liable for the accident.
Drawing parallels between this case and Phillips’s case, Phillips could argue similarly to the Dennys’ and say that although Columbia may have intended to use the advertising to depict action in the movie, what they really did was mislead consumers to believe that the movie was something that it was not. This in turn lead to the acts of violence that occurred outside the movie theatres. In light of rulings such as in the Denny case, the government has started the ball rolling on some legislation that would make it a criminal offense to “knowingly and recklessly” release a defective or misleading product to the market (Brostoff, p. 2).
The legislation, known as S. 3014, even goes as far as saying: “If the product causes a death, the responsible parties could be held guilty of second-degree murder and imprisoned for up to 15 years? these penalties could be applied to any employee of a corporation or other business entity” (Brostoff, p. 2). Had this legislation been present when Mr. Phillips was filing his suit, his legal claims would have had even more backing. Also, there would have been a lot of executives sweating bullets over at Columbia Pictures.
With this legislation in place however, I am sure that these executives would thought about the advertising and marketing of this project a great deal more, especially when releasing it in areas where there was significant gang influence. “Strict products liability law necessarily is predicated on an understanding of the definition of ? product,’ yet the guidance currently provided to both legal practitioners and the courts regarding this definition is surprisingly scarce-and often inconsistent” (Lamnetti, p. 799).
This quote from The Business Lawyer suggests that because the law is so vague on what a “product” is today, imagine how vague it was in the very early 90’s when Alejandro was attempting to file his case. When his case was taking place, most people probably considered a movie to be more of a service, so it is vague whether or not it could be filed under the same laws as a product. To alleviate that problem, legislators are seeing to it that the definition of “product” is updated to reflect our rapidly changing global economy. Legislation such as this would have greatly helped strengthen Alejandro’s legal claims.
Having shed light on Alejandro’s legal claims, it is important to now hear the arguments that Columbia has in its defense. The primary question that you have to ask yourself when listening to this case deals directly with consumer responsibility. One must ask themselves “should a company be held responsible for the brash actions of a few? ” A related example would be the Columbine High tragedy. Many people linked the fact that the three killers had all played the video game Doom a lot, which involves killing many enemies in order to pass a level. Now, it is fair to say that everyone who plays Doom will go on a horrible killing spree.
No, it is not. Nor is it fair to say that the makers of Doom should be held responsible for the gruesome acts of three individuals. In the same way, Columbia Pictures should not be held responsible for the acts of a brash few who misinterpreted the content of the movie and used the movie as a forum to display the superiority of their gang through senseless violence. In Columbia’s defense, it is also important to cite the situation that Mr. Phillips is attempting to file suit against them with. He is attempting to say that they advertising of the movie led to the violence that resulted in his being shot in the back.
This however is extremely hard to prove. This is not a case of a manufacturer’s flaw where a badly designed tire blows and causes an accident that kills four people. This issue is not nearly as cut and dry. In this case, Columbia’s product did not pull the triggers that killed and wounded the victims outside the theatre, and that is a fact. While a blown tire may be able to be linked directly back to the manufacturing company, here the only smoking gun is one that is in the hand of a gang member who has merely chosen this to be the site of a violent display.
In order to strengthen its defense, Columbia could cite the recent legislation that is about to be passed concerning product liability reform. “The bill, known as H. R. 2366 or S. 1185, would limit the product liability of non-manufacturer sellers such as distributors and retailers and provide small businesses some protection from excess litigation” (Industrial Distribution, p. 36). Columbia could cite that this is only the beginning and that similar legislation is on its way that will further help to eliminate frivolous lawsuits such as Mr.
Phillips’s as well as help companies avoid long and painful litigation and settlement processes. Now comes the time to decide the case. In an attempt to remain as partial as I can be, I would render the following verdicts in favor of Alejandro Phillips. First, the commercials and other advertisements that depict the violent scenes of the movie shall be no longer shown. New ones may be made, but will first be reviewed by an outside committee to determine if they are appropriate. Second, the movie Boyz N the Hood shall be pulled out of all areas where conflicts such as the one involving Mr.
Phillips arose. Lastly, citing that Columbia’s advertising may have misled Mr. Phillips as well as others, Columbia will pay an amount of $1 million to Mr. Phillips for medical expenses and pain and suffering. I would decide this way because I feel that the advertising used by Columbia was misleading, “and there is a distinct moral component to the marketing process: it isn’t just about not breaking false advertising laws. It’s about using statistics deceptively-spinning the truth to minimize damage, enhancing a product’s appeal beyond its due, promising the moon and delivering green cheese” (Eckert, p.49).
I feel that it was a negligent action to foster negative energy in environments where hatred already blazes. It is not a company’s job to determine how everyone who comes in contact with their product is going to act, but just a little common sense should tell you that releasing a movie with the content such as Boyz N the Hood and only focusing on its negative themes will send the wrong message, especially in metro areas where crimes and gangs are prevalent.
In an ideal world, consumers and companies would equally share the burdens of product liability and consumer responsibility. However, in the real world, we must make tradeoffs between these two. How we do this will not only affect our legal environment, but our economic and social environments as well. Works Cited Anonymous, Industrial Distribution, New York, April 2000, Volume 89, issue 4, p. 36.
Brostoff, Steven, National Underwriter, Chicago, September 2000, volume 104, issue 38, p. 2 Eckert, Stephen, Marketing News, Chicago, April 2000, Volume 34, issue 9, p. 49. Giliberti, Frank, Marketing Management, Chicago, Winter 1999, Volume 8, issue 4, pp. 53-54. Lamnetti, David, The Business Lawyer, Chicago, February 2000, Volume 55, issue 2, p. 799. McAdams, Tony, Law, Business, and Society, Irwin/McGraw-Hill, New York, 2001, Sixth Edition, p. 636.