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.
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.
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 This unpublished decision provides useful guidance regarding the burden of proof in a failure-to-warn case and whether a plaintiff is entitled to a presumption that had an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.
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The "state of flux" continued in the landscape of Pennsylvania products liability law, with the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania choosing to apply the Restatement Third of Torts to a Plaintiff's strict liability claims in a matter involving an allegedly defective ladder. This is significant, as almost one year ago the Middle District chose to apply the Restatement Second in a products liability action.  The volatile nature of the applicable substantive law in Pennsylvania product liability actions figures to continue until the Pennsylvania Supreme Court renders an Opinion on the applicable substantive law in Tincher v. Omega Flex, 64 A.2d 626.