In Extremis: Child's Play and Liability for Defective Toys

Disclaimer: Note that just like your favourite childhood stuffed animal this article is just for fun. So, if you want to be a “good guy” go ask an adult to obtain independent legal advice if you have wanted to argue that a possessed doll killed your babysitter.

It’s finally time to talk about everyone’s favourite homicidal doll. (No, we are not talking about Annabelle). With the Child’s Play reboot coming out, I wanted to discuss a topic near and dear to everyone’s heart; product liability for children’s toys!

Oh, you don’t think so? Well strap on your horror hat and read this short article about a child in Arizona that ingested an aqua bear containing the properties of a date rape drug which caused brain damage; or the recall on Cabbage Patch Kids Snacktime Kids dolls that got children’s fingers and hair stuck in their battery powered jaws.(1) And we all know how much lead paint was in all our toys in 2006, am I right folks?!(2)

Now that you are legitimately fearing for your children, let’s get back to some lighthearted fun. Would Playpal, the company that makes the Good Guy dolls in Child’s Play (1988), be liable for their product harming people? Not in the way you might assume.

In the original film Playpal is not liable for Chucky’s murders. There is no evidence presented onscreen that the original dolls are hazardous. The doll being possessed by serial killer Charles Lee Ray is what made it dangerous. This is called an intervening cause (novus actus interveniens), and to prove negligence by the product manufacturer/retailer/etc. you must prove they caused the harm that you are seeking to be compensated. in this circumstance the harm was caused by a different entity occupying the toy and was not a defect in the toy itself.

However, I do have to raise some issues with the actual Good Guy dolls. The original Good Guys boxes(3) do not have a recommended age for children; nor do they have any warnings about small parts being a choking hazard, etc. The replicas you can get online in fact specify ages 15+, which is rather humourous for a fairly regular doll.(4) Andy is six years old when his mom purchases the doll for him, and the marketing in the film is targeting younger children as the intellectual property is associated with a children’s cereal and cartoon show. Therefore, PlayPal needs to have greater safety warnings and test their toys to ensure that they comply with various standards.(5)

There are usually two tests applied by juries in product liability cases:

  1. the consumer expectations test; and
  2. the risk-utility test

The first is whether the consumer would reasonably consider it defective. Both the Good Guy doll and the tool chest are not defective in that they perform their proper function (unless possessed), but the labeling may be considered defective as we shall see. The risk-utility test is that the company is liable for injuries if the probability of injury times the gravity of injury under the current product design is more than the cost of an alternative reasonable design plus the diminished utility resulting from modifying the design. That is a lot of faux math to say that the design is defective if you are more likely to be injured by this product over a different design of the product that can do the same thing.