As Washington’s cannabis industry continues to develop, marijuana businesses continue to face new challenges. And with an ever growing number of consumers buying and using marijuana the risk of lawsuits against those who produce or sell cannabis keeps growing as well. Under what is called product liability law, manufacturers, distributors, suppliers, retailers, and others who make products available to the public can relatively easily be held liable for any injuries those products cause. Cannabis business owners must be mindful of product liability lawsuits arising from the cannabis products they make or sell.
In Washington State, product liability law is codified in the Washington Product Liability Act (WPLA), which broadly applies to virtually any injury claim resulting from a product covered under this act. The WPLA distinguishes between product manufacturers and non-manufacturer sellers. Washington’s marijuana market is divided between businesses who grow and process cannabis and businesses that sell the product to consumers. Manufacturers, for WPLA purposes, are the licensed producers that grow cannabis and turn that cannabis into edibles, extracts, concentrates, and other marijuana products. Non-manufacturer sellers are retailers that sell marijuana to consumers. A business can hold a license to produce and process marijuana but it cannot also have any ownership interest in a retail business. In turn, a retailer may have not an ownership interest in a cannabis producer or processor.
A product manufacturer is subject to liability under the WPLA if it was negligent or failed to provide proper warnings or instructions or if the product was not designed as reasonably safe. A plaintiff can show negligence by proving the manufacturer owed a duty to the plaintiff, the defendant breached that duty, and the breach caused the plaintiff damages. A plaintiff can prove a manufacturer failed to provide an adequate warning by showing that a product’s warning or instructions were not likely to notify the consumer of the potential harm and the manufacturer could have provided instructions or warnings that would have been adequate. A plaintiff can show that a product was defectively constructed by establishing that “when the product left the control of the manufacturer, the product deviated in some material way from the design specifications or performance standards of the manufacturer, or deviated in some material way from otherwise identical units of the same product line.” Finally, a plaintiff can prove that a product lacked adequate warning and was designed defectively if the product “was unsafe to an extent beyond that which would be contemplated by the ordinary consumer.”
Washington’s robust marijuana regulations may provide producers and processors with some safeguards against claims brought under the WPLA. Producers and processors may present evidence of compliance with Washington’s extensive cannabis laws and regulations as a defense to a product liability lawsuit. However, compliance with these state law cannabis standards does not automatically bar products liability claims as it is still possible the state required warnings or acceptable standards for growing and processing are inadequate.
Under the WPLA, non-manufacturer sellers can be liable in some scenarios, but simply selling a product that eventually leads to injury does not by itself establish liability. This means that retailers have a lower risk of being subject to product liability than a manufacturer because they do not manufacture the products they sell. However, a retailer may be liable to an injured consumer if the consumer’s harm was caused by the seller’s own negligence by the breach of a warranty made by the seller, or by a seller’s intentional misrepresentation of facts about the product it is selling. A seller may also be liable if there is no financially solvent manufacturer. Because many producers and processors do not have the funds or the insurance to pay off on large (or even not so large) product liability lawsuits, even cannabis retailers in Washington State need to be wary of product liability lawsuits.
Marijuana businesses operators can reduce their product liability risks by doing the following:
- Set up your cannabis business so as to protect yourself from personal liability. See Cannabis Businesses And Corporate Separateness and Cannabis Business and Corporate Separateness, Part II
- Vet the businesses with which you conduct business and, in particular, seek to ensure they are complying with applicable regulations and industry standards. See Buying a Cannabis Business: The Top Five Due Diligence Items or Buyer Beware.
- Draft your contracts so that vendors must indemnify you for any damages arising from their defective product.
- Use appropriate packaging and warning labels on the products you sell. See Cannabis Products and Dosing: Educate, Educate, Educate and Label, Label, Label and Pot Puppies? Let’s Talk Labeling and Packaging. NOW.
- Get good insurance for your business. The LCB requires cannabis licensees carry and maintain commercial general liability insurance, but you should also consider adding additional insurance to cover potential product liability lawsuits.