Contracts: who bears the burden of proof in defective product cases?

Contracts: who bears the burden of proof in defective product cases?

The question of who bears the burden of proof in a contractual dispute is not always clear cut. The experienced commercial litigation lawyers at top Bahamas law firm ParrisWhittaker advise commercial organisations on contractual disputes involving both businesses and consumers.

Usually, the burden of proof is on the claimant to prove its case on the balance of probabilities.  But if the defendant argues, for instance, that the claimant’s negligence or omission to do something contributed to the matter complained of, it is for the defendant to prove its argument. 

The legal system in The Bahamas is based on English common law supplemented by domestic laws.  The Consumer Protection Act 2006, for instance, provides that compensation is payable where loss or damage arises from goods proving defective while in consumer use, resulting from the negligence of a person concerned in the manufacture or distribution of the goods.

Decisions of the higher English courts are persuasive in terms of how the domestic courts in The Bahamas interpret the law.  The High Court in London recently considered the issue of burden of proof in relation to a product liability case – particularly who bears the burden of proof at the time of supply. See Love v Halfords [2014] EWHC 1057

What was the background to this case?

Under the UK’s Consumer Protection Act 1987 (‘the 1987 Act’), the Defendant supplied a bike to the Claimant (imported from Vietnam – a point initially denied). While riding the bike, the steerer tube in the mechanism of the bike fractured.  This caused the Claimant to lose control of the bike and he fell off, landing on his face.  He fell on a sharp metal stanchion and suffered serious head and facial injuries, including losing one of his eyes.

The Claimant argued there was a defect in the bicycle forks/steerer tube.  At issue was whether or not there was this defect, and whether the burden of proof was on the Defence to show that it was not defective when supplied to the Claimant (a defence under section 4 of the 1987 Act).  The claimant argued that the plain meaning under the 1987 Act meant that the burden of proving this defence was on the Defendant.

Decision: The High Court found that there was an evidential burden of proof on the defendant to show there was no defect in the component at the point of sale. 

What are the implications?

As a result of this decision, suppliers and importers of products that are allegedly found to be defective, may now have to prove that the product was not defective at the time of supply if they decide to rely on this defence.

The issue of the evidence in support of both parties’ cases was complex, involving many practical difficulties, and problems with establishing the overseas quality control processes concerning third party components.

The ruling means it is critical for commercial suppliers facing compensation claims as a result of allegedly defective products, to secure the best comprehensive expert evidence they can in support of their defence and any counterclaim.

How can we help?

The commercial litigation lawyers at ParrisWhittaker are experienced in preparing and defending claims arising out of the supply of goods and services.  If you have been notified of a claim for compensation because of a defective product or for any other reason, contact us for urgent assistance before taking further action.   Contact us now