Skip to content

Note: A Broken Theory: The Malfunction Theory of Strict Products Liability and the Need for a New Doctrine in the Field of Surgical Robotics

By Christopher Beglinger. Full Text.

The malfunction theory of strict products liability affords a plaintiff an inference of a product defect through the presentation of circumstantial evidence. Under the malfunction theory, a plaintiff may establish a prima facie case by providing evidence of the nature of a product malfunction, evidence eliminating abnormal use of the product, and evidence eliminating reasonable secondary causes of the malfunction. Upon satisfying the malfunction theory’s three-prong test, the trier-of-fact may infer that a malfunction would not have occurred absent a defect existing at the time of sale.

Although courts have consistently recited the malfunction theory’s three-prong test, in light of the immense technological and industrial changes over the past several decades, courts have struggled to consistently apply the malfunction theory and traditional products liability concepts to industrially complex cases. More specifically, courts have attempted to delineate the boundaries of the malfunction theory in order to determine whether a product malfunction is attributable to the manufacturer, improper maintenance by the end-user, a third-party’s negligence, and/or simply the result of an accident.

This Note explores the boundaries of products liability law in the field of robotics, specifically the application of the malfunction theory to telepresence surgical robotics. Given the technological complexities of robotics in the modern digital age, the frequency of human-robot interactions, and the underlying policy concerns of products liability law, this Note argues that a new approach to the malfunction theory should be adopted to better address the advent of surgical robotics. This Note concludes that in applying the malfunction theory of products liability to surgical robotics, state courts should infer a product defect from the occurrence of a malfunction in the absence of abnormal use and raise a rebuttable presumption that there were no reasonable secondary causes of the malfunction.