3D Printing Leads To Possible Legal Issues

January 10, 2014 | Charles Bowen

The new 3D printing industry has been called revolutionary by many people who say it will empower individuals to become manufacturers, lowering the barriers to entry for a wide array of product categories to small inventors and mom-and-pop operations. Given the sophistication of 3D printers, anyone can pay a relatively small amount of money to manufacture almost anything, from a cup to a shoe to a gun.

While access to such sophisticated and cheap manufacturing is widely seen as a good thing, one legal expert from Stanford University, Professor Nora Freeman Engstrom, has said that the technological advancement raises some important legal questions. Specifically, the new 3D printing may lead to changes in the way that strict product liability rules are applied in the case of customer injury.

Currently, the concept of strict product liability says that any person who is injured by a defective product can sue and win against a manufacturer without having to go to the lengths of proving that the maker of the product was negligent. That means that if a major company makes a product that injures you, you can sue and win without first having to show exactly what the company did that was careless.

If a person is injured by a product made by a 3D printer, something that might be owned and operated out of the home of some inventor, the lawsuit would likely not be based on strict liability but rather on negligence. This would mean that the injured individual would need to prove that the maker of the product was careless, a much higher burden of proof.

The reason for the difference is that strict liability laws apply only to commercial sellers, those whose business is in manufacturing and selling products. Casual sellers, who make small batches of items from the home, fall outside these laws. That means a smalltime inventor with a 3D printer in his basement will likely not be deemed a commercial seller.

Professor Engstrom says that if 3D printing booms and manufacturing really does become decentralized, then it may result in a huge drop in product liability lawsuits, as lawyers are no longer able to push strict liability cases against major manufacturers. Suing individual operators based on negligence would be a far more time-consuming and expensive process, potentially diminishing the protections that consumers currently have under the existing system. Professor Engstrom also pointed out that while it’s possible product liability litigation would dry up; it is also possible that 3D printed products will continue to be made by major manufacturers or distributed by large commercial distribution operations. If these large commercial companies continue to handle the production and distribution of 3D printed goods as opposed to small-scale inventors, then consumers could continue filing similar strict liability claims. Exactly how the 3D printing will shake out remains to be seen and will likely be closely watched by manufacturers as well as attorneys.