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Is Evidence of a Plaintiff's Contributory Negligence Admissible in a Strict Product Liability Action? PA Federal Court Allows It, But only for Limited Purposes

thumbnail image for tireStrict product liability generally focuses on the product itself, not the negligent conduct of the defendant, and as a result, defendants often are precluded from relying on certain negligence concepts in defending strict liability actions. A plaintiff's comparative fault or contributory negligence, for example, generally may not be used to excuse a product's defects or reduce a defendant's fault. A recent decision from the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania makes clear, however, that evidence of a plaintiff's negligent conduct may be admissible in a strict product liability case under limited circumstances. Dodson v. Beijing Capital Tire Co., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 158484, at *8-13 (M.D. Pa. Sep. 27, 2017). Because such evidence can be powerful in defending these types of actions, it is important to understand when and why it may be admissible.

Dodson arose out of injuries plaintiff suffered while mounting and inflating a tire manufactured by Beijing Capital Tire Co. ("BCT") during his employment as a technician. The tire ruptured, allegedly causing severe injuries to plaintiff, including loss of use of his dominant arm. Id. at *2. Plaintiff sued BCT for strict liability predicated on a design defect theory and also asserted a negligence claim against the tire distributor. At trial, plaintiff moved to preclude evidence of plaintiff's own misconduct, negligence, or recklessness, arguing that Pennsylvania law "precludes a defendant in a strict liability case from raising the plaintiff's negligence as a defense to liability or causation." Id. at *9. The court rejected the argument, finding (i) plaintiff's negligence claim requires consideration of contributory negligence and (ii) a properly instructed jury can separate the issue of evidence on contributory negligence from consideration of plaintiff's theory premised on strict liability. Id. at *11.

More interesting, however, is that the court's decision is not predicated solely on the evidence's relevance to plaintiff's negligence claim. The court expressly addressed the issue of whether evidence of contributory negligence also is relevant in defending a strict liability claim. BCT argued that such evidence is relevant to causation, "as manufacturers must anticipate the expected use of a product." Evidence of product misuse goes directly to proximate cause. The court agreed and held that when proximate cause is at issue, "even in an action for strict liability, evidence bearing on causation is relevant." Id. at *12. Accordingly, "[e]vidence of misuse, including unforeseeable, outrageous, and extraordinary use of a product, is admissible in considering the causation element of a strict liability design defect claim." Id. at *11-12.

In defending a strict product liability action premised on a design defect, defendants should consider whether plaintiff's negligent conduct - misuse of the product, for example - is significant enough to break the chain of causation between the design of the product and plaintiff's injury. As the court in Dodson recognizes, "[a]lthough evidence of a user's negligence cannot be introduced at trial to excuse a defective product or reduce recovery by comparing fault," evidence of a plaintiff's negligence may be relevant and admissible as it relates to causation.

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