217 N.Y. 382 (1916)

Introduction: A seminal and still leading case in the area of torts law — products liability.  The opinion, authored by Justice Cardozo, was the starting point for a long line of cases holding that privity was not a requisite of liability based on negligence, where the defendant created a product with knowledge that the product, while normally safe, can be harmful if poorly designed or made.

Summary: Buick Motor Co. (Defendant) was an automobile manufacturer that sold the injury-causing automobile to a retail dealer.  The retail dealer subsequently resold the vehicle to Donald C. MacPherson (Plaintiff).

Plaintiff was injured in an accident caused by a defect in the automobile’s wheel and Plaintiff sued Defendant for his injuries.  Defendant argued that since Plaintiff had purchased the automobile from the dealer and not directly from Defendant, there was no privity for it to be held liable for the injuries to Plaintiff.

Defendant also argued that it had not manufactured the wheel.  There indeed was evidence showing that Defendant had purchased the wheel from another manufacturer.  However, notwithstanding the fact that Defendant had not manufactured the defective wheel, the evidence also suggested that the defect could have been discovered by the Defendant by reasonable inspection, which inspection was omitted.

In its landmark opinion, the court rejected Defendant’s arguments.  Importantly, the court rejected the defense based on lack of privity by reasoning that:

If the nature of a thing is such that it is reasonably certain to place life and limb in peril when negligently made, it is then a thing of danger. Its nature gives warning of the consequences to be expected. If to the element of danger there is added knowledge that the thing will be used by persons other than the purchaser, and used without new tests, then, irrespective of contract, the manufacturer of this thing of danger is under a duty to make it carefully . . . There must be knowledge of a danger, not merely possible, but probable. It is possible to use almost anything in a way that will make it dangerous if defective. That is not enough to charge the manufacturer with a duty independent of his contract. Whether a given thing is dangerous may be sometimes a question for the court and sometimes a question for the jury. There must also be knowledge that in the usual course of events the danger will be shared by others than the buyer. Such knowledge may often be inferred from the nature of the transaction. But it is possible that even knowledge of the danger and of the use will not always be enough. The proximity or remoteness of the relation is a factor to be considered. We are dealing now with the liability of the manufacturer of the finished product, who puts it on the market to be used without inspection by his customers. If he is negligent, where danger is to be foreseen, a liability will follow.

Id. at 389-90 (emphasis added).

As for Defendant’s second argument, although the defective wheel had been purchased from another manufacturer, the court reasoned that the automobile manufacturer’s duty of reasonable care extended to inspection of component parts.  The possible liability of the manufacturer of the component part was a question that the court left for another day.

Significance:  Before MacPherson, the courts had generally followed Winterbottom v. Wright, denying liability in the absence of privity for injuries caused by defective products.  Over time, a number of exceptions began to emerge for products that courts recognized as likely to present especially acute risks of harm if negligently produced, including mislabeled poisons, defective circular saws, and exploding coffee urns.  With respect to most products, however, courts continued to apply the privity rule of Winterbottom until, in MacPherson, Judge Cardozo announced the shift in the basis for liability for negligently manufactured products from formal relation to foreseeable risk.  Judge Cardozo reasoned that previous cases (which until then had been considered exceptions to the general rule of no liability without privity) had reflected a general principle of negligence-based liability for dangerously defective products to persons foreseeable at risk of injury.  The nature of an automobile was such that, if negligently manufactured, it was likely to cause harm; and the Plaintiff — not the dealer who was in privity with Defendant — was exactly the person at risk.

Following MacPherson’s lead, jurisdictions proceeded to abandon the privity rule in one of the most extensive transformations in the United States tort law.  See, e.g., Spencer v. Madsen, 142 F.2d 820 (3d Cir. 1944) (“The decision in the MacPherson case has received wide spread judicial approval and may now be regarded as starting the general accepted law on the subject.”).

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