Are you liable for goods you sell on your website?

There are ways to protect your business from potential product liability problems before they happen.

by Stephanie Morrow
updated May 11, 2023 ·  3min read

Despite huge differences, brick-and-mortar operations and virtual storefronts share a common concern to most businesses, product liability. A disclaimer on your website stating that you are not liable for problems won't protect you from being liable for whatever product you're selling. But don't worry. There are ways to guard your business, online and offline, from potential product liability problems before they occur.

What Is Product Liability?

Product liability is the responsibility of a manufacturer or supplier of a product or the product's seller for damage caused by that product. In the United States, claims associated with product liability are based on negligence, strict liability, breach of warranty, or various consumer protection claims. Most product liability laws are determined at the state level and vary from state to state.

Product liability negligence claims are usually those claiming a design defect, a manufacturing defect, or a failure to warn about a potential defect.

Basic Negligence Claims

A basic negligence claim consists of proof of (1) a duty owed by the manufacturer, (2) a breach of that duty, (3) that the breach caused the customer injury, and (4) an injury.

A breach of warranty occurs when a promise is broken. Either a product is defective, or it is not what the buyer expected. The latter is common in e-commerce since Internet customers don't physically see what they've bought until it arrives on their doorstep.

Consumer Protection

Consumer protection is government regulation to protect consumers' interests. For example, consumer protection laws require businesses to disclose detailed information about products, particularly in areas where safety or public health is an issue, such as food or other perishable products.

As a seller, probably the most threatening form of product liability is strict liability. Rather than focusing on the manufacturer's behavior, strict liability claims focus on the product itself as in negligence.

In this type of claim, the customer must prove that the product is defective or unreasonably dangerous. Strict liability for defective products can potentially be very costly and dangerous to the seller.

It doesn't end there; liability costs can also affect the manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, and anyone else involved in distributing the product.

Protection from Product Liability

There are ways to protect yourself from potential product liability claims. The first step is to deal only with reputable vendors who sell quality products.

Ensure you know what you are selling and ensure that the descriptions on your Web site match the actual product. If a product includes a service agreement or a warranty, make sure that it is legally reliable.

Product Liability Claims

If you are hit with a product liability claim, always remember that the consumer must prove that the product was defective. Three types of product defects incur liability: design defects, manufacturing defects, and defects in marketing. This is why you should always know what you are selling and how it is marketed on your website.

Liability Insurance

If you still feel you need added protection from liability, you might want to purchase product liability insurance coverage. This is particularly important if you make a product that could harm someone.

For example, sellers of perishable items that may spoil, such as chocolates or cheese, can benefit from product liability insurance.

Many businesses selling via the Internet do not have product liability coverage. Because of this, there is no recourse for a business owner if an accident happens, and he or she is left with full liability.

Just because a particular product sells well in retail stores, it does not mean it will necessarily sell well online. In fact, many products cannot be sold easily over the Internet because of high product liability issues.

Before building your e-commerce store, evaluate your product's appropriateness for online sales. In particular, consider potential product liability for customers who will not physically see it when purchasing over the Internet.

Because product liability laws vary from state to state, you should consult with a legal professional before selling a product on your site.

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Stephanie Morrow

About the Author

Stephanie Morrow

Stephanie Morrow has been a contributor to LegalZoom since 2005 and has written about nearly all aspects of law, from ta… Read more

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.