Strict 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.
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.