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Introduction to the Product Liability Framework

Puerto Rico’s legal system is unique among US jurisdictions. As a former colony of the Kingdom of Spain, it draws heavily on the civil law tradition. The Civil Code is the fundamental source of law in many areas of private law, including tort law.2 Puerto Rican courts frequently rely on three sources of law: statutory law; court opinions; and the work of tratadistas (authors of treatises). Treatise writers are scholars who write detailed commentaries on the civil law, much like scholars who analyze the common law.3

However, due to Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States, which began with the 1898 Treaty of Paris,4 the common law has strongly influenced local legislation, judicial opinions, and legal commentary.5 Puerto Rico’s system is therefore a mixture of Spanish civil law, American common law, and American-style constitutional and procedural law. As a notice and order from the Federal District Court of Puerto Rico once said, “Puerto Rico enjoys two major legal systems. From the interaction and synthesis of these systems, but without eclipsing or banishing either, a new Derecho Puertorriqueno can and does emerge.6

Product liability is an area heavily influenced by the common law. For many years, the doctrine of strict product liability was not found in the Civil Code;7 thus, to “fill a gap in our body of law”,8 the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico incorporated the principle of strict product liability under the guise of Section 1802 of the Civil Code of 1930, Puerto Rico’s general tort provision.9

However, on June 1, 2020, after several years of extensive work, a new Civil Code was approved, which replaced the 1930 Civil Code.ten The new Civil Code entered into force on November 28, 2020. The Supreme Court has long insisted that the implementation of legislation in the field of product liability is imperative,11 but the call fell largely on deaf ears until the new Civil Code. This Code includes product liability provisions. It was also amended and removed much of the legislation included in the old Civil Code.

Courts have not ruled on cases involving these new product liability provisions, as most of the recent cases in this area concern facts that occurred before the entry into force of the new Civil Code of 2020 and are therefore governed by the Civil Code of 1930. Article 1815 of the new Civil Code of 2020 provides that “non-contractual liability, both in its extent and in its nature, is determined by the law in force at the time when produces the act or omission which gives rise to the said liability”. If certain acts or omissions occurred before the validity of this Code and others after, the responsibility is governed by the former legislation”.12

Regulatory monitoring

Like the federal government and the states of the Union, Puerto Rico has administrative bodies with the power to regulate, arbitrate and enforce on issues related to product safety. These include:

  1. the Department of Consumer Affairs, whose main objective is to enforce regulations aimed at protecting consumer rights, containing inflation and monitoring the prices of consumer goods and services;13
  2. the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, which, among other things, is responsible for implementing Puerto Rico’s constitutional and statutory public policy on the environment14 and as such has regulatory and enforcement authority over product and business regulations to control contamination and pollution; and
  3. the Occupational Safety and Health Administration of the Puerto Rico Department of Labor, which promulgates and enforces workplace safety regulations.15

Puerto Rico can and does resort to the courts in the exercise of its fatherland parenthesis power to claim damages, including product liability.16