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Who Bears Legal Responsibility for 3D-Printed Devices?

Who Bears Legal Responsibility for 3D-Printed Devices?

3D printing technology promises to revolutionize the way products are designed and made. At the industrial scale it allows manufacturers to build customized goods at a fraction of their historical cost. Affordable consumer-grade 3D printers give anyone with a computer unprecedented creative control over the design and construction of products. But if a 3D-printed item is unsafe and causes an injury, who bears responsibility?

A 3D printer works by translating a digital model into a real object typically made of ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), a common plastic used in all sorts of products. The printer builds up an object one thin layer at a time, allowing designs to incorporate complex elements like hinges or wheels. In theory a 3D printer can be used to create just about anything.

Libraries of downloadable model files are available on the web, many of them for free. Many designs are simple toys or decorative objects. But other models are for useful objects. Instead of tossing out an old product with a broken part, the consumer could simply print a replacement part. Instead of running to the store to track down a specialized tool for solving a particular problem, the consumer could simply print one.

The potential risk of harm from 3D-printed objects

There probably is little harm if a model file for a cat figurine doesn’t print out correctly. But some products may involve real risk of personal injury. For example, a printed model of a safety fitting on a chainsaw may not have the same performance specifications of the original part, perhaps because the printer’s output material isn’t appropriate for the application or because the model itself isn’t precisely the right shape.

If a consumer is injured by an improperly designed model the creator of the model might be legally liable for damages. Most likely such a case would need to be based on a theory of negligence. The injured person must show that the designer did not take reasonable care to ensure that the model would be safe in reasonably foreseeable applications. A designer might be responsible for warning consumers if the model needs to be made using a specific kind of material, especially if it is something other than ABS.

A central challenge for a plaintiff in such cases will be proving the source of the defect in the 3D-printed object. The model designer likely will point out that he or she had nothing to do with the printing process itself, which could introduce flaws that aren’t inherent in the design. There may also be a good argument that the user of a 3D-printed object assumes the risk that it will not work the way an ordinary commercial product would.

Talk to a personal injury attorney if you have questions

For over 45 years the attorneys at Greenman Goldberg Raby Martinez have represented personal injury clients in the Las Vegas area. If you have been injured by a 3D-printed object we can guide you through your legal options. Call us today for a free attorney consultation at 702-388-4476, or request a call through our website.