NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Plaintiff's Lawyers Go After Voluntary Product Standards

July 11, 2001

Until recently, virtually all courts declined to extend product liability to trade associations that develop voluntary safety standards in good faith. But a recent case in Washington state has left trade associations vulnerable, say observers.

  • The case involves an incident a decade ago when a 16-year-old dove into a friend's swimming pool, broke his neck on the pool's bottom and became a quadriplegic.
  • The makers of the diving board and vinyl pool lining, the pool seller and the homeowner all settled the lawsuit.
  • But then the lawyers went after the National Spa and Pool Institute -- a trade association which had nothing to do with designing, manufacturing or installing the pool, and whose guidelines weren't even used by the builder.
  • But a jury held it liable for $6.6 million in damages -- a verdict later upheld by two appeals courts in Washington state.

Legal experts say the question here is whether, once an association takes on the responsibility of setting safety standards, it owes what's called a "duty of care" to consumers. An analogy would be whether a bystander who tries to aid an accident victim and leaves him worse off than before should be liable for damages.

Source: Matthew Swibel, "In Hot Water," Forbes, July 9, 2001.


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