The BMW recall – What happens when products are dangerous?

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Other than returning them for a refund, how are consumers protected if a product turns out to be dangerous?

BMW became the latest motor manufacturer to hit the headlines this week after it was forced to issue a recall notice for 312,000 vehicles sold in the UK between 2007 and 2011.

An electrical fault found in certain models could cause cars to stall unexpectedly, and has been linked to a road traffic accident in 2016 in which a motorist died after swerving to avoid a stalled BMW.

BMW are not alone, of course, and other manufacturers at various times have had to recall their cars for repairs or upgrades, including Vauxhall, Nissan and famously due to the emissions scandal, Volkswagen. Even toy cars sold by Tesco were subject to a recall last month.

Most people would expect that if something they buy is faulty, they can return it or exchange it. As well as being good customer service by the seller, it is also usually the law that a consumer can return goods if there is a problem with them.

However, what if the problem is not just that the goods are faulty, but that they are dangerous? Ordinary consumer law (the “statutory rights” that shops’ notices are always telling us are not affected) covers exchanges and refunds, but what if the product has caused a fire or a road accident, and caused damage or injury? A fault with tumble dryers sold under brands including Hotpoint, Indesit, Creda and Proline has been linked with a series of fires. A refund will replace the dryer, but won’t make up for the damage it has done.

The law that protects consumers arose out of the Thalidomide scandal. Thalidomide was a drug offered to pregnant women in the 1950s to combat morning sickness. However, in the 1960s it was realised that it was causing serious birth defects and was withdrawn. Victims who wanted to claim compensation had to prove that there had been some fault on the part of the manufacturers, and this meant they had to go through a lengthy legal battle.

To put the onus firmly on the manufacturers, in 1987 the Consumer Protection Act came into force. Subject to certain exceptions, manufacturers were made automatically liable for damages for personal injury or property damage caused by a defect in their products. This meant that victims no longer needed to show the manufacturer had been careless in some way. If the product is defective they can be compensated for their losses.

The act also makes “own branders” liable, so for example if a supermarket has its branding on a product they can be liable as well as or instead of the actual manufacturer. If a product is manufactured outside the European Union, the company or person who imported it into the EU can also be made liable.

There are some limitations. The defect must be one that existed when the product was manufactured, so something that develops through normal wear and tear won’t be covered. The act is also intended to protect consumers, so in general it won’t cover damage to business property. Additionally, protection only lasts until 10 years from when the manufacturer last put the product into circulation.

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