The possibility of printing 3D products ranging from high heels to handguns at home could have serious legal implications for consumers.
People may not be protected under traditional product liability law if they buy a risky home-printed object and get hurt, according to Nora Freeman Engstrom, an associate professor at Stanford University.
Rather, they could be left to pursue harder-to-prove negligence lawsuits.
3D printers can produce elaborate three-dimensional products of almost any shape, working from designs on a computer screen. The technology has become affordable for individuals, allowing them in effect to become “manufacturers” of any number of objects, from plastic vases to bionic ears, and from high heels to handguns.
What does this mean for consumer protection? That’s the crux of the legal question Engstrom raises in a study published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review.
“Following any significant technological breakthrough,” she writes, “legal scholars, practitioners, and policymakers must consider how the innovation meshes with—or poses challenges to—our existing laws and system of governance.
“Will it fit? What must change? Where are the pitfalls and opportunities? 3D printing is no exception.”
Winning a lawsuit
Under current “strict liability” product law, a person who is injured by a defective product can win a lawsuit without necessarily showing that the maker or distributor of the product was negligent.
“This means,” she says, “if you fall ill from eating tainted peanut butter you purchased at, say, Wal-Mart, you can sue Wal-Mart for your injuries—and you can prevail in that lawsuit even if Wal-Mart used all possible care in the peanut butter’s selection, storage and sale.”
On the other hand, Engstrom explains, a person injured by a home-printed product would likely only be left with a negligence-based lawsuit. Negligence focuses on proving that the manufacturer, distributor or seller of the product was careless—a higher hurdle.
Why is the legal treatment different for home-printed products? She says that part of the answer is due to the “commercial-casual divide” in product liability doctrine.
“This divide refers to the fact that product liability law only applies to ‘commercial’ sellers—defined as those engaged in the business of selling or otherwise distributing products.”
Casual sellers, such as a housewife who makes and sells jam or a child who makes and sells lemonade, fall outside the scope of product liability laws. Engstrom says that hobbyist 3D inventors, who print products in their garages and on their kitchen countertops, are arguably casual, rather than commercial sellers—so strict product liability laws likely won’t apply.
As a result, she says, if home 3D printing “really does take off, product liability litigation as we know it may, in large measure, dry up.” At the least, she adds, it will erode some of the protections under the current doctrine.
Flash in the pan?
If 3D printing does become hugely popular, however, it does not automatically mean that injury victims will be left without any consumer protections. One wrinkle is that manufacturers are increasingly using 3D printers and commercial distributors are making those products available to the public.
Engstrom’s analysis addressed only the legal claim a person would have if he or she were hurt by a product made by a home 3D printer.
“The various obstacles I identify in the path of a plaintiff injured by a home-3D-printed object don’t necessarily stand in the way of a plaintiff injured by a commercially-printed object,” she says.
She also points out that the line between negligence and certain product liability claims is “awfully thin.” This means some plaintiffs injured by home-printed objects might actually prevail in “old-fashioned negligence” lawsuits, despite the additional burden of proving carelessness by the manufacturer, distributor, or seller.
Moreover, Engstrom cautions, it’s still not clear what 3D printers are capable of producing—or how fully the American public will embrace the new technology.
“Is this technology a flash in the pan? Or will home 3D printers really, as some claim, fundamentally alter the goods we buy, the products we use, and the world we inhabit?”
Source: Stanford University