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Product manuals are routinely offered into evidence at product liability trials. Manuals may be introduced by the plaintiff to demonstrate the inadequacy of the warnings or instructions, or by the defense to establish that the accident could have been avoided if the product had been used as it was intended and the product warnings had been heeded. Manufacturers may take it for granted that their product manuals provide clear instructions and sufficient warnings. However, once the manufacturer issued in a products liability case, plaintiffs’ experts will eagerly expose any deficiencies that may exist.
A manual should be an asset rather than a liability in a lawsuit, and a well-written manual can also be an effective risk management tool. This is one reason manufacturers should make it a practice to review their manuals with a critical eye — not only prior to its initial publication but also periodically thereafter — to ensure the product’s warnings and instructions are being conveyed in a clear and organized fashion.
What are some central issues to look for when reviewing a manual?
These subjects are only a starting point for a comprehensive manual review but are essential issues to address.
When a new version of the product is introduced, the manual should be reviewed and revised as appropriate. This means more than simply replacing the model name (Widget 2.0 with Widget 2.1) unless the changes to the product do not affect the product’s operation or features. Otherwise, a complete review of the manual should be made to account for any differences in operation that may affect product safety.
Likewise, if a new product line is introduced, it is essential to make sure the new manual does not simply copy and paste from the company’s other product manuals without making sure the design differences in the new product are accounted for in the new manual. Manufacturers should give as much attention to the new manual as they did to writing the original product manual in order to ensure that there are no references to older features that do not exist on the new product or warnings that do not make sense in light of new design.
Finally, it is often helpful to review competitors’ manuals to determine how your manual stacks up. If competitors are including different warnings or more detailed instructions, that does not necessarily mean your manual is deficient, but it should encourage a more detailed analysis of the warnings at issue.
Jurors are much more favorably inclined towards a manufacturer defendant when they feel that the manufacturer is responsible and cares about the safety of the customer or user. Because the manufacturer is perceived as having the greatest knowledge of the product’s use and its hazards, it is imperative that the manufacturer be able to effectively demonstrate that it has gone to great lengths to clearly communicate – through the product manual – the proper use of the product and the risks associated with the use of the product. Think of a manual review like routine maintenance for your home or vehicle: Take care of it before it becomes a problem.