[The following is a longer and un-footnoted draft of a third Policy Digest prepared for a Sydney Southeast Asia Centre joint research project and an ASEAN Secretariat project on consumer protection law.
A. Under-Enforcement of Product Liability Law for Small-Value Claims
Manufacturers can be incentivised to supply safe consumer goods due to market (reputation) mechanisms, public safety regulation, and/or private law (especially potential tort law liability if consumers claim compensation for harm caused by defective products). The first two mechanisms work better if there is a high probability or risk of harm, as public opinion is then easier to mobilize, although public safety regulation is usually only implemented when the potential harm from unsafe goods is also high. Product liability (PL) law is therefore particularly important to incentivise manufacturers of goods that present a lower probability of harm. However, because of costs associated with enforcing PL law – ultimately through the court system – it tends to work best where the harm and therefore compensation amounts are high. Strict liability PL regimes, increasingly common in ASEAN member states, aim to lessen the burden of proof on potential plaintiffs, who no longer have to prove negligence on the part of manufacturers. Accordingly, they can make more feasible this mechanism even for defective products that generate lower levels of harm and compensation amounts.
Nonetheless, strict liability PL law is still often difficult for consumers to invoke, even in developed countries with comparatively good access to court procedures. After all, unsafe products may often just cause consequential loss to other “consumer goods”. (Only a few countries extend strict PL law coverage to consequential losses to non-consumer goods, which tend to be more extensive. ) Even when personal injury results from the defective products, the harm suffered by each consumer may be low even if the aggregated harm is high. (Good recent examples may be Kanebo’s skin-whitening cosmetics, recently recalled throughout Asian markets, or defective foodstuffs – if consumed in small quantities. ) In such situations, each individual consumer will be reluctant to pursue claims through the court system.
Such problems are compounded in developing and even middle-income countries, where courts are under-resourced or face other generic problems, or accessing them still runs counter to prevailing social norms. This helps explain the limited impact of strict liability PL law reforms observed in South East Asia, despite some of those countries going beyond the European Union (EU) substantive law, for example by allowing consumers to claim multiple damages (i.e. more than the actual harm suffered).
The consequent under-enforcement of consumer law in this field is problematic from the viewpoint of economic efficiency as well as broader justice concerns. After all, the basic economic rationale for introducing strict liability for unsafe manufactured products is that consumers lack expertise to assess safety levels. The latter furthermore correlate only weakly with the pricing of such goods (except some that could cause catastrophic losses if risks eventuate, such as automobiles, which tend to subject to minimum public regulatory standards anyway). Even if particularly well-informed consumers are able to differentiate safety levels of various products, they may end up in the hands of third parties. The economic benefits of introducing strict liability PL law to mitigate such problems, by forcing manufacturers to “internalize” the full costs associated with putting goods into the market, is undermined if those substantive laws are inadequately enforced. This is also problematic from the perspective of justice and advancing the rule of law, a major objective particularly in developing countries and for ASEAN.