3-D Printing and Product Liability: Identifying the Obstacles
3-D printers—with the capacity to make three-dimensional solid objects from digital designs—have arrived. Home 3-D printers are already affordable (some are less than $1000), and, though these printers make mostly straightforward products, that’s apt to change. A quick tour of the web reveals pictures of myriad “printed” objects, from the simple (a plastic vase), to the stunning (a bionic ear!), to the terrifying (an operational handgun dubbed “the Liberator”). Those within the industry have high hopes. Brook Drumm, the founder of one 3-D printing company, for example, envisions “a printer in every home.” The New York Times has predicted that 3-D printers will “become a part of our daily lives . . . much sooner than anyone anticipated.” Even President Obama has embraced this technology, declaring in his most recent State of the Union address that 3-D printing “has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.” In short, though it’s just in its infancy, 3-D printing seems poised to transform the goods we buy, the products we use, and the world we inhabit.
Following any significant technological breakthrough, legal scholars, practitioners, and policymakers must consider how the innovation meshes with—or poses challenges to—our existing laws and system of governance. Will it fit? What must change? Where are the pitfalls and opportunities? 3-D printing is no exception. The laws it implicates are numerous, and the challenges it poses are profound. To begin the inquiry in just one area, I attempt to apply contemporary product liability (PL) law to defective products printed from home 3-D printers. This analysis suggests that if home 3-D printing really does take off, PL litigation as we know it may, in large measure, dry up. And, if it doesn’t, the technology threatens to unsettle the theoretical justification for product liability law’s development.
In general, we have, and have long had, strict liability for defective products. In the words of the Third Restatement: “One engaged in the business of selling or otherwise distributing products who sells or distributes a defective product is subject to liability for harm to persons or property caused by the defect.” What are the implications for PL law, however, if Brook Drumm’s hope of a printer in every home is even partially realized?
The first consequence is obvious and uncontroversial: many more individuals will make, in their kitchens and on their countertops, products that are complex, sophisticated, and dangerous. The second consequence is equally uncontroversial: over time, these hobbyist inventors will start selling some of the complex, sophisticated, and dangerous products they create, and certain individuals who purchase their creations will, unfortunately but inevitably, sustain injuries. The third consequence is, I think, surprising: in many instances, no one will be strictly liable for these injuries under current PL doctrine.