Defective products cause harm to persons and property on a daily basis. Product Liability law has accordingly evolved as a specialised area of the law of delict which seeks to prevent product accidents from happening and provides compensation in the event that defective products nevertheless reach the consumer market. Accordingly product liability regimes generally have both ex ante components such as product standards, recall mechanisms and liability provisions which are aimed at deterrence and risk-spreading as well as provisions that are applied ex post to provide redress and compensation.
Designing an appropriate legal framework to underpin a product liability regime is a daunting task that involves achieving of an appropriate balance between the interests of various parties inter alia those of consumers, suppliers and the broader community. In recent decades many countries have migrated from a fault-based product liability regime to a regime which purportedly imposes strict liability on the whole supply chain. This bold move in modern product liability was pioneered in the United States who has since returned to fault-based liability for design and warning defects whilst returning strict liability in respect of manufacturing defects. After many years South Africa has joined the group of countries that applies strict liability to all defects regardless of their type. Notably the product liability regime introduced into South African law by means of the Consumer Protection Act 68 of 2008 (“CPA”) resembles the main features of the EU Product Liability Directive 85/374/EEC. The EU Model has also been taken over by Australia when they transitioned to a purportedly strict product regime in 1992. During this process the thesis also considers whether, by adopting the European model, South Africa has taken over a model which has been criticised by some American authors as outdated and based on 1965 strict product liability rhetoric as contained in section 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts which approach has since been discarded in the US in favour of the hybrid approach contained in the US Restatement (Third): Product Liability. This thesis focuses on product liability ex delicto. Its main aim is to interrogate and evaluate the product liability provisions contained in section 61 of the CPA, specifically with regard to the pivotal concept of defect and the statutory defences the Act has introduced. It details South Africa’s journey from the fault-based common law of product liability to the purportedly strict regime espoused by the CPA, which regimes operate parallel to each other. This is done to facilitate an understanding of the differences between the two regimes and specifically to aid interpretation and application of the product liability provisions in the CPA that deal with defectiveness and the new statutory defences. In order to obtain further guidance on how the concept of “defect” and the statutory defences in the CPA should, or could, be interpreted and applied the thesis initially considers the general foundational principles underlying product liability law and how this area of law has evolved in the United States, being the origin of modern product liability law. However, given that the South African regime of “strict” product liability ex delicto has its roots in the EU Directive and resembles some of the adapted features of the Australian product liability regime contained in the comprehensive Australian Consumer Law, the main comparative focus is on these two jurisdictions.