After seven years, the Supreme Court finally ended the first product-related class action promoted in Italy relating to a medical device. The decision is noteworthy, despite the small sum awarded, because very few class actions have been declared admissible to date and even fewer cases have been upheld on the merits due to strict admissibility requirements.
Two decisions by the joint divisions of the Supreme Court have laid down significant principles on causation and limitation. Although the claims involved treatment with blood derivative products, the court's reasoning is likely to affect a far wider range of cases.
The Italian legislation that implements the EU Product Liability Directive specifies that a producer is not liable for damage caused by a defect in a product if the consumer is aware of the defect and of the ensuing risk, and accepts such risk. A recent decision is one of the first in Italy to consider in detail the standards that product information must meet in order to warn consumers adequately.
The EU Product Liability Directive and Italy's implementing legislation establish that an injured party bears the burden of proving the defect in the product, the damage and the causation between the two. However, manufacturers have been found liable solely on the basis of damage and causation, the alleged defect in their product being inferred. A Supreme Court ruling sheds new light on the issue.
A case involving a distributor's liability for the inaccurate labelling of an alcoholic beverage raises the question of whether a mere distributor - which is not involved in the production process and has no influence on what information appears on the label - may be held liable for incorrect labelling under national legislation.
The Antitrust Authority, the body in charge of enforcing the laws relating to misleading and comparative advertising, has fined an Italian producer of frozen pre-fried potatoes for using a nutritional claim which was considered to be misleading to consumers. This decision partly foreshadowed the nutritional claim provisions in the recently enacted EU Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation.
In two cases involving infections caused by blood transfusions or treatment with blood derivatives, product manufacturers have been able to avail themselves of the development risks defence or an equivalent. The revival of this defence is an encouraging trend for manufacturers and suppliers which operate in innovative industries.
Two draft bills aimed at introducing class actions in Italy were recently presented to Parliament. Both are aimed at providing consumers affected by the same unlawful event with greater legal protection, but one explicitly allows for class proceedings in respect of tort as well as contract claims. In principle, this would open the door to class claims against product manufacturers and distributors.