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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.

Federal Court Grants Summary Judgment to Strict Product Liability Defendant in Case Proceeding Under Tincher's Consumer Expectations Standard

To prevail on a strict product liability claim under Pennsylvania law, a plaintiff must prove the product at issue is defective, the defect existed when the product left defendant's hands, and the defect caused the harm. A product may be defective based on a manufacturing or design defect, or based on a failure to warn. Regardless of the theory, a plaintiff must satisfy one of two standards (or both) to show a product is defective: (i) a consumer expectations standard; and/or (ii) a risk-utility standard. In the wake of Tincher v. Omega Flex, Inc., 104 A.3d 328 (Pa. 2014), Pennsylvania courts continue to define the contours of these standards, and a recent decision from the Western District of Pennsylvania, Igwe v. Skaggs, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 99622 (W.D. Pa. Jun. 28, 2017), adds clarity to the consumer expectations standard in particular.

In the Wake of Tincher, Can a Strict Product Liability Defendant Rely on Compliance Standards?

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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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.

The State of Products Liability in Pennsylvania after Tincher - Part One

Owen-J-Mcgrann-profile.jpgThe Pennsylvania Supreme Court has, after decades of only tangentially addressing clear issues with the state products liability law in the Commonwealth, at last spoken. Since the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued Azzarello v. Black Brothers Co., 391 A.2d 1020 (Pa. 1979) thirty-five years ago, Pennsylvania has been one of the most plaintiff-friendly jurisdictions for product liability claims. Azzarello adopted a unique version of the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 402A, which effectively took as hard-line of a strict liability stance as is conceivable under the Second Restatement.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Decides in Tincher Case: "No Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability §§ 1 et seq."

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Pennsylvania Federal Middle District Applies Restatement Third in Recent Products Liability Case

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Rules Pharmaceutical Company Not Immune to Products Liability Claims for Defective Drugs

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