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If your business supplies products to consumers, you need to make sure the products are safe.
The heaviest responsibility falls on producers, eg the manufacturer of a product. But distributors - such as shops and wholesalers - also have legal responsibilities.
Failing to meet your responsibilities can have serious consequences. You could face legal action with possible fines or even imprisonment. You could also be sued by anyone who has been injured or has suffered damage to personal property as a result of using your product.
This guide outlines the basics of product liability and product safety law. It will help you understand how you are affected and what action you need to take.
Your responsibilities as a producer, distributor or seller
By law, products sold to consumers must be safe.
The main responsibility falls on producers, manufacturers and importers to ensure that products are safe by:
- warning consumers about potential risks
- providing information to help consumers understand the risks
- monitoring the safety of products
- taking action if a safety problem is found
You need to take an active approach to preventing safety problems, otherwise you risk being sued, fined or imprisoned.
Particular care should be taken with high-risk products such as toys, fireworks, food and medicines. You should also be aware of the specific regulations which apply to such products. Read in-depth guidance on types of products.
See how to ensure your products are safe.
Producers and distributors must inform their local authority (typically, the Trading Standards Department).
Even if you don’t manufacture the products you sell, you will still have safety responsibilities. You must not sell any product which you know, or should know, is unsafe. You can find recent product recall notices on the CTSI website.
You can visit the Association of British Insurers website to download liability insurance guidance for small businesses.
Product safety liability
The main responsibility for product safety falls on producers.This includes:
- businesses that supply own-brand products
- businesses that change the safety of a product - for example, by customising or servicing it
Often, several businesses are involved as producers and can be jointly liable if a product causes harm. For example, several component makers might supply parts to a manufacturer that assembles the product.
Distributors - eg shops and wholesalers - are not normally liable for harm to consumers or their property caused by an unsafe product, as long as they identify the producer. But distributors do have some responsibility for safety and can face enforcement action.
Anyone who is harmed by an unsafe product could sue. They can begin their court case up to three years from the date of the injury. In some cases, they can even sue up to ten years after the product was sold.
If you’re involved in producing or supplying consumer products, you will need to take practical steps to prevent problems.
It’s strongly advisable to insure your business against potential damages claims.
If you are liable for harm caused by an unsafe product, you can be sued by anyone who is harmed - even if they didn’t buy the product themselves.
You can be sued for compensation for death or injury. You can also be sued for damage or loss of private property caused by faulty goods if the damage amounts to at least £275. The amount that can be claimed will depend on the harm suffered. There is no upper limit.
Many businesses take product liability insurance to protect them from legal costs and damages awards.
Enforcement authorities can take action if they think unsafe products are being supplied.
Trading Standards officers in local councils are responsible for most safety enforcement. Some special products, such as food and medicines, are dealt with by other authorities. Check with your local Trading Standards office if you are unsure. You can find your local Trading Standards office on the CTSI website.
Trading Standards officers can buy or seize goods to check they are safe. They can also enter your premises to see whether you are breaking the rules. If they think your products are unsafe, they can:
- order you to stop selling them
- go to court and ask for the products to be destroyed
- prosecute you - if convicted you could be fined or imprisoned
- demand the recall of an unsafe product
Defending a product liability claim
If someone sues you under product liability laws, your first step is to consider who is liable. If you are a distributor, such as a shop, you may not be liable if you can identify the original producer.
If you’re the producer and you believe the problem was caused by a fault in your production process, you may want to admit liability and settle the claim. Alternatively, you will need to prove one of six defences:
- You did not supply the product. For example, you are not liable if a product is stolen or is a fake copy of one of your products.
- You could not reasonably be expected to discover the safety fault. For example, if scientific evidence first comes to light after you have manufactured or sold your product.
- The safety fault was an inevitable result of obeying other laws.
- Someone else caused the fault after you supplied the product.
- You didn’t supply the product in the course of business. For example, the law does not apply to private gifts.
- If you make components, you are not liable if you can show that the manufacturer who assembled the product caused the fault. For example, the manufacturer might have made a poorly designed product or ordered the wrong components from you.
You can’t defend yourself simply on the basis that a user was careless. But if you can show that they contributed to a problem, the amount of damages may be reduced.
If Trading Standards take enforcement action against you under product safety rules, you can also choose to defend yourself. You need to prove you did everything that could reasonably be expected. If you’re successful, you may get compensation for any loss suffered - eg if Trading Standards destroyed your goods.
You should be aware that court cases are usually expensive and complicated. Take professional legal advice before taking any action.
Preventing product safety problems
Producers, manufacturers, importers and suppliers all have a responsibility to ensure that products are safe. You should:
- consider safety at every stage, from initial design through to selling
- check whether there are any specific regulations or safety standards applying to your product and that you meet them
See how to ensure your products are safe.
In addition, suppliers must:
- give customers any safety information provided by the producer
- investigate safety complaints, and tell the manufacturer
- co-operate with Trading Standards officers
Think about ways to protect yourself if you are sued such as by purchasing product liability insurance to cover damages and legal costs.
If you think you’re at risk, take advice from your business adviser or solicitor. Your trade association may also be able to give you information about standards and best practice in your industry.
For more information, see how to ensure your products are safe.