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Is 3-D Printing Disrupting Products Liability Law?

The backbone of products liability law is created with the concept of the traditional supply chain – designer, manufacturer, distributor, and purchaser. However, with more and more people turning to 3-D printing, where a person is able to design and create a product in their basement or garage, the concept of the traditional supply chain is thrown out the window. Along with this is the basic ideas about strict liability.

There are few courts that have actually dealt with this issue thus far; however, many attorneys have begun looking into the many complexities that are likely going to arise as 3-D printing continues to grow.

Some of the most common questions related to 3-D printing range from the pretty mundane, such as a bicyclist that creates a bicycle part, to heart surgeons creating a 3-D printed model of a person’s heart to practice a challenging surgery.

If there is a failure with the surgery, is this a medical malpractice issue? Or is it an issue where products liability comes into play?

While it can be quite difficult to figure out how the issues will play out if they go to court, there are some attorneys who have stated that the initial litigation regarding this technology is likely going to be focused on the auto parts and medical industries.

With many hospitals printing medication, body parts and devices, hospital staff and doctors may soon be thought of as manufacturers, and then potentially be subject to strict liability claims. The same may also occur with auto parts distributors who, rather than pay overhead to house thousands of parts, can just print the parts after customers or manufacturers give them the design blueprints for the item in question.

There are some regulatory bodies that have started to touch on this issue. However, since there is so much that is still unresolved, many lawyers are looking into concepts of products liability when they are advising their clients.

The actual machines that offer the additive manufacturing, which is commonly called 3-D printing, use CAD software (computer aided design) software as a blueprint for the product. These files are often able to be downloaded from the Internet.

According to some attorneys, when you are dealing with companies that actively use 3-D printing, liability issues are typically able to be broken down into three different categories:

  • When the manufacturer licenses or purchases a design that is used for printing the product.
  • When the manufacturer has modified the file prior to printing the product.
  • When the manufacturer actually designs the file.

While the companies that actually create, or even the ones that manipulate, the CAD files may be subject to additional liability, some basic arguments may be given to each of the above categories.

The fact is, these cases have many layers. Since 3-D printing is still a relatively new technology, knowing who is going to be held liable is still a bit of a mystery. After all, a person can create a toy that injures a child. They may not have much net worth, even if a claim is filed. Also, the person who originally created the CAD file may live across the globe – it makes the situation even more complex.

Time will tell how these cases will play out. Eventually, some type of legislation is likely going to have to be created to regulate 3-D printing.