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In The Wake of Tincher, Can a Strict Product Liability Defendant Rely on Compliance With Government Regulations or Industry Standards? Pennsylvania Law Remains Unsettled.

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In a strict product liability claim, compliance with government regulations and industry standards can be powerful evidence for the defense. Such evidence traditionally has been inadmissible under Pennsylvania law based on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's decision in Lewis v. Coffing Hoist Div., Duff-Norton Co., Inc., 528 A.2d 590 (Pa. 1987). The Court's decision in Tincher v. Omega Flex, 104 A.3d 328 (Pa. 2014), however, raises questions about the continued viability of Lewis and provides defendants with a compelling argument that this type of evidence should be admissible. Nevertheless, Pennsylvania courts have been slow to reach that conclusion, and recent Superior Court decisions cast doubt on the admissibility of such evidence, which at best remains an open issue.

Pennsylvania Superior Court Decision Highlights Importance of Rebuttal Evidence on Causation in Defending a Strict-Liability, Failure-to-Warn Claim

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The Pennsylvania Superior Court recently affirmed an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County entering a judgment against American Honda Motor Co., Inc. ("Honda") on a jury verdict of $55,325,714 in a personal injury action. American Honda Motor Co., Inc. v. Martinez, 2017 Pa. Super. LEXIS 271 (Pa. Super. Apr. 19, 2017). Plaintiff in Martinez suffered severe injuries in an automobile accident allegedly as a result of (i) a defectively designed seatbelt and (ii) a failure to warn with respect to the subject car's inability to protect passengers in certain types of accidents. In addition to providing a helpful analysis of design-defect claims after Tincher v. Omega Flex, 104 A.3d 328 (Pa. 2014), the Martinez decision provides guidance as to how Pennsylvania courts analyze causation in a failure-to-warn claim.

The element of causation in a failure-to-warn claim requires plaintiff to prove that had an adequate warning been given, plaintiff would have followed it. See, e.g., Dolby v. Ziegler Tire & Supply Co., 2017 Pa. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 791 (Pa. Super. Feb. 28, 2017). In Martinez, Honda argued on appeal that the trial court erred by instructing jurors that they must presume plaintiff would have followed an adequate warning. The Superior Court affirmed the instruction, noting that the trial court did not apply the presumption "in a vacuum." Critically, plaintiff presented testimony at trial, over Honda's objection, that had there been a warning about the car's inability to protect him in a rollover, he would not have purchased the car. Moreover, Honda did not rebut plaintiff's testimony on this issue. The Superior Court held that in the absence of rebuttal evidence, the heeding instruction was appropriate.

When Does an Agreement to Repurchase Construction Material Equal a Contract for Services?

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Recently, in the case of CPG Int'l LLC v. Shelter Products, Inc., No. 3:15cv1045 (M.D. Pa. 2017) the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania denied a motion for partial summary judgment on the grounds that the claim at issue was not barred by the statute of frauds, which applies to contracts for the sale of goods, because the purchaser actually agreed to provide a service to the seller in repurchasing inventory and relocating it to another distributor.

Pa. Commonwealth Court Applies Multiple Trigger for Claims of Property Damage Caused by Continuing Pollution

A panel of the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court issued its opinion in Pa. Manufacturers' Ass'n Ins. Co. v. Johnson Matthey, 2017 Pa. Commw. LEXIS 115 (Pa. Commw. April 21, 2017) adopting the multiple trigger of J.H. France to claims of property damage caused by continuing pollution. The CommonwealtBrandonMcCullough--Insurance Blog Photo 2.jpgh Court is one of Pennsylvania's two mid-level appellate courts and is primarily responsible for matters involving state and local governments and regulatory agencies. It also acts as a trial court when lawsuits are filed by or against the Commonwealth. It does not have significant experience with insurance coverage cases. This case was brought before the Commonwealth Court by Pa. Manufacturers' on a petition for review in its original jurisdiction seeking a declaration that it had no obligation to defend or indemnify JMI with respect to a suit filed by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in U.S. District Court for the costs of cleaning up contamination at a facility used to manufacture and process metal alloy tubes and associated equipment from 1969 to 1974. DEP was joined as a necessary party as required under Pennsylvania's declaratory judgment statute.

DEP's complaint alleged that as a result of those operations, hazardous substances including trichloroethylene, were disposed in the environment and that subsurface migration of contaminated groundwater from the site contaminated an aquifer beneath the site and offsite properties. At issue were two commercial general liability policies Pa Manufacturers' issued in 1969 and 1970 (the policies covering the period from April 1, 1971 to April 1, 1979 were exhausted). Based upon the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's Pa. Nat'l Mut. Cas. Ins. Co. v. St. John decision, Pa. Manufacturers' argued that only those policies in effect when the contamination, i.e. property damage, manifested would be triggered. Pa. Manufacturers' sought summary relief. 

What Is the Pennsylvania One Call System?

Reiner, Amber 143 .jpg April is National Safe Digging Month, reminding all contractors and homeowners to call 811 at least three business days before starting a digging project to ensure that all underground utility lines are properly marked and precautions are taken to ensure safety and damage prevention. Whether you are in Pennsylvania or another state, 811 is the nationally recognized number for reporting your planned digging project. According to Pennsylvania 811, "every six minutes an underground utility line is damaged because someone decided to dig without first dialing 8-1-1." Hitting a single utility line can cause severe bodily injury as well as repair costs and power outages. So whether you're planning to simply install a new fence or you're about to begin a major public construction project, Call Before You Dig!

PA Superior Court Rejects "Heeding Presumption" In Strict-Liability, Failure-To-Warn Action

In Dolby v. Ziegler Tire & Supply Co., 2017 Pa. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 791 (Pa. Super. Feb. 28, 2017), a case that proceeded to trial solely on a strict-product-liability, failure-to-warn claim, the Superior Court recently affirmed an Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas decision granting defendants' motion for compulsory nonsuit following plaintiff's case in chief. This unpublished decision provides useful guidance regarding the burden of proof in a failure-to-warn case and whether a plaintiff is entitled to a presumption that had an adequate warning been given, it would have been followed.

In Dolby, the court reaffirmed that three types of product defects - design, manufacturing, and failure to warn - may give rise to strict liability. A plaintiff asserting a failure-to-warn claim must establish two elements: (i) the product was sold in a defective condition, unreasonably dangerous to the user; and (ii) the defect caused plaintiff's injury. Focusing on the second element, causation, the Superior Court held that plaintiff must establish the product user would have avoided the risk if warned - i.e., the user would have heeded the warning. The court rejected plaintiff's argument that this element may be presumed under certain circumstances.

Superior Court Finds that Non-owner Party to Construction Contract Not Indispensable to Mechanic's Lien Action

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Recently, the Pennsylvania Superior Court held that a trial court's rationale for concluding that the wife of the property owner and a co-party to a construction contract is an indispensable party to a mechanics' lien claim was in error. The Superior Court held that the statute does not require that the mechanics' lien claimant name all parties to the contract to satisfy the requirements set forth in the mechanics' lien statute; it requires only that the claimant name the owner or reputed owner of the property.

In Schell v. Murphy, 2016 Pa. Super 302 (Pa. Superior, Dec. 2016), the Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed the finding of the Bedford County Court of Common Pleas, which held that the wife of property owner Mr. Murphy, who was not an owner of record of the property but was a co-party to a construction contract for improvements to the property, was an indispensable party to the contractor's mechanics lien action. The trial court held that, despite the clear language of the statute requiring only that the mechanics' lien name the owner of the property, Wife was an indispensable party in this mechanics' lien action. The trial court offered the following.

Construction Consultant Permitted to Pursue Unjust Enrichment Claim against Homeowner

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The Superior Court of Pennsylvania, in a "non-precedential" opinion, recently remanded a case to allow a construction consultant to pursue a claim for unjust enrichment against a homeowner, in spite of the lack of either a written or oral contract between the parties.

In Karden Construction Service, Inc. v. D'Amico, 1351 MDA 2015 (Pa. Super. 2016), the court found that plaintiff had no claim against a homeowner for litigation support services rendered to plaintiff's counsel. The court held that the attorney for plaintiff retained the consultant for that purpose and accordingly there was a contract between the attorneys and plaintiff for that retention. Moreover, the court held the litigation was still pending so there could be no claim for those services based on an unjust enrichment claim. However, the court remanded the case to the trial court to proceed on an unjust enrichment claim for services that plaintiff rendered directly to the homeowner defendant that were unrelated to the litigation but were in the nature of construction management of the work on the homeowners new home.

A Quick Look into the Statutory Employer Defense

Reiner, Amber 143 .jpgIn a recent case filed in the US District Court for the Middle District of PA, a general contractor and subcontractor agreed to pay $1.2 million to settle claims after a worker fell at a construction site. In short, the plaintiff fell while walking across a 17 foot high wall on a construction site on the Misericordia University campus in Luzerne County, suffering serious injuries to his ankles and feet.

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