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3D Printing Creates Murky Product Liability Issues, Stanford Scholar Says

Publication Date: 
December 12, 2013
Stanford Report
Clifton B. Parker

Professor Nora Freeman Engstrom comments on the possible difficulties of legislating 3-D Printing in The Stanford Report.

Associate Professor Nora Freeman Engstrom warns that in a world of 3-D printing, people may not be protected under traditional product liability law. Rather, they could be left to pursue harder-to-prove negligence lawsuits.

While 3-D printing technology empowers people to create amazing objects once unimagined, it also raises red flags on the legal concept of strict product liability, according to a Stanford law professor.

Nora Freeman Engstrom, an associate professor, published her research in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, exploring how 3-D printing is poised to challenge the American litigation landscape.


Under current "strict liability" product law, a person who is injured by a defective product can win a lawsuit without necessarily showing that the maker or distributor of the product was negligent.

"This means," she said, "if you fall ill from eating tainted peanut butter you purchased at, say, Wal-Mart, you can sue Wal-Mart for your injuries – and you can prevail in that lawsuit even if Wal-Mart used all possible care in the peanut butter's selection, storage and sale."

On the other hand, Engstrom said, a person injured by a home-printed product would likely only be left with a negligence-based lawsuit. Negligence focuses on proving that the manufacturer, distributor or seller of the product was careless – a higher hurdle.


Casual sellers, such as a housewife who makes and sells jam or a child who makes and sells lemonade, fall outside the scope of product liability laws. Engstrom said that hobbyist 3-D inventors, who print products in their garages and on their kitchen countertops, are arguably casual, rather than commercial sellers – so strict product liability laws likely won't apply.

As a result, she said, if home 3-D printing "really does take off, product liability litigation as we know it may, in large measure, dry up." At the least, she said, it will erode some of the protections under the current doctrine.


Moreover, Engstrom cautioned, it's still not clear what 3-D printers are capable of producing – or how fully the American public will embrace the new technology. "Is this technology a flash in the pan? Or will home 3-D printers really, as some claim, fundamentally alter the goods we buy, the products we use, and the world we inhabit?"