The current state of Pennsylvania products liability law remains muddled as we continue to await the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s ruling in Tincher v. Omega Flex. As previously discussed, the Court in Tincher is determining whether the Restatement Second of Torts or Restatement Third of Torts will be the substantive law in Pennsylvania. In the interim, the substantive law in federal courts in Pennsylvania depends upon the judge. Recently, Judge Mannion of the Federal Middle District of Pennsylvania applied the Restatement Third in a products liability action involving the alleged failure of a nylon strap and subsequent workplace injury.
In Varner v. MHS, LTD., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 28472 (M.D. Pa. March 6, 2014), Plaintiff Robert Varner was injured while using a nylon strap manufactured by Defendant to lift plates. Plaintiff alleged that the strap broke, causing the plates to fall onto his arm. He subsequently brought suit against the defendant manufacturer under theories of strict liability, negligence, and breach of warranty. The Defendant filed its motion for summary judgment, arguing that the nylon strap was not an unreasonably dangerous product and that an adequate warning was given. Finally, Defendant argued that Plaintiff’s misuse of the product was the cause of Plaintiff’s injury.
Judge Mannion applied the Restatement (Third) of Torts to the Motion for Summary Judgment, which was granted in part and denied in part. The Court granted Defendants’ Motion on the design defect claim and the failure to warn claim. However, the Motion was denied on Plaintiff’s claims for a manufacturing defect.
As to the manufacturing defect, the Plaintiff proceeded under the malfunction theory of liability, which allows Plaintiff to use circumstantial evidence rather than direct evidence to show that the product was defective. Under the Restatement (Third) approach, a Plaintiff can support an inference of a manufacturing defect if the incident that harmed the plaintiff 1) was of a kind that ordinarily occurs as a result of a product defect; and 2) was not solely the result of causes other than product defect existing at the time of sale or distribution. (Restatement Third of Torts §3). The Court held that the strap malfunctioned because it was not supposed to break, and based on the evidence presented, the timing of the malfunction was a factual issue for the jury to determine. Thus, summary judgment was denied on the manufacturing defect.
The Plaintiff also alleged that the strap was defectively designed. The Restatement (Third) of Torts uses a reasonableness-based, risk-utility balancing test as the standard for adjudging the defectiveness of product designs. Plaintiff’s expert set forth a “reasonable alternative design” for the strap, stating that the strap was unreasonably dangerous because a warning tag was sewn to the strap on only one of its four sides. Additionally, this tag was easily removable purposefully and accidentally. Plaintiff’s expert’s reasonable alternative design included a warning tag being sewn onto all four sides. Evidence was also offered that another strap manufacturer followed the same procedure regarding the sewing on all four corners. The Court accepted this as a reasonable and cost-effective alternative design. However, the Court granted Defendant’s summary judgment on design defect because Plaintiff did not show that the straps were not reasonably safe with the current design. While Plaintiff’s expert did state that the straps would be safer with additional warning tags, he did not show that the straps were not reasonably safe without those tags. The Court held that an argument that a different warning tag would make a safe product safer is insufficient to prevent summary judgment.
The Court also granted Defendant summary judgment on Plaintiff’s failure to warn claim. Under the Restatement (Third) of Torts §2(c), a product is defective because of inadequate warnings when “the foreseeable risks of harm posed by the product could have been reduced or avoided by the provision of reasonable instructions or warnings by the seller or other distributor, and the omission of the instructions or warnings renders the product not reasonably safe.” Plaintiff argued that there was no evidence of any warnings regarding the strap, besides the leather tag, which was not attached to the strap when Plaintiff’s expert inspected it. However, Plaintiff did not establish that the warning tag was not shipped with the strap when purchased. Because Plaintiff could not show that the strap is not reasonably safe because the warning tags on the straps are not sewn in on all four sides, his failure to warn claim could not survive summary judgment.