Product Liability and 3D Printing

I’m going to do some posts on 3D printing this week, some of which relate to the paper that Deven and I are writing.  This one deals with product liability.

As I’ve said before (to great consternation), state product liability law is basically a dead field.  In large part, this is because of federal preemption.  But the growth of 3D printing, like other technological changes, may bring the common law back into vogue because Congress will not get its act together quickly to regulate this field.

Here’s the basic issue.  In a world of 3D printing, anyone could be a manufacturer.  Let’s say I make something from scratch in my 3D printer at home and that product (a toy, a cookie, a tool, a spare part) injures someone.  Should we apply the same principles of product liability to that person that we would to a firm?  Yes and no, I think.  We probably won’t require individuals to put warnings on what they make, but we may say that a design or manufacturing defect should lead to strict liability.  Or would we say that a negligence standard should apply to homemade products?

Now try this one on for size.  I upload a file that will make some something to a website.  Someone downloads my file, makes the item, and this injures someone.  Is the author of the file on the hook for a design defect claim?  What about the website?  While this could depend on a number of factors, courts will again need to think hard about how product liability rules should be adapted to this ecosystem.

We’re not there yet, but it’s coming.

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8 Responses

  1. Joe says:

    Rachel Maddow raised this issue recently in the context of weapons.

  2. AndyK says:

    What? Are gun manufacturers selling / releasing their design specs now? I seriously doubt Maddow brought this particular issue— liability for design or product defects, etc. for the secondary (legal or illegal) manufacturer.

    More likely she was raising the hyper-partisan issue of gun manufacturer liability for deaths UNRELATED TO product defect.

  3. Joe says:

    She discussed how the technology involved in 3D printing can be applied to gun manufacture and how this would result in a revolution on how we would (and be able to) regulate them.

  4. Brett Bellmore says:

    I don’t think it’s that much of a revolution; Regulation of firearms is already severely limited by the existence of a black market, bolstered both by a criminal class who use guns, and a population who don’t regard the regulations as legitimate, and hence feel no particular obligation to comply with them. Widespread ownership of home shop equipment capable of manufacturing superior firearms from scratch, and hobby reloading are a factor, too.

    Perhaps 3d printing is more important for the way it shatters the illusion that firearms can be effectively regulated, than for actually impeding the regulation.

  5. AndyK says:

    Joe:

    Okay, I stand (partially) corrected. But the issue here is where specs are publicly available. Buying a gun and surreptitiously copying it could and should never lead to liability for the gun manufacturer. Even in a world where everyone could make such a copy, a liability rule here would simple grind human innovation to a halt: “anything you invent we will hold you liable for.”

    So unless gun manufacturers are releasing their specs, the issue is entirely different.

    Brett: Personally, I agree regulation is futile, but the point is, I think, to make us feel better about ourselves. I think that is a good enough reason to support a law, and I’m happy with many of the entirely ineffective laws we have, because people need to be kept optimistic.

  6. Joe says:

    Is the Borg involved here? No that is resistance is futile.

    I’m not game on the extreme sentiments applied here. Regulation is not futile. It will be applied differently as things changed. How this will work remains to be seen when the things have changed and a new path is taken.

  7. Brett Bellmore says:

    “Brett: Personally, I agree regulation is futile, but the point is, I think, to make us feel better about ourselves. I think that is a good enough reason to support a law, and I’m happy with many of the entirely ineffective laws we have, because people need to be kept optimistic.”

    What you mean ‘we’, white man?” I’m the regulated here, not the regulator, and I assure you having my civil liberties attacked doesn’t make me feel either better about myself, or optimistic.