How much has the recent Tincher v. Omega Flex, Inc., Opinion changed the landscape of products liability law in Pennsylvania? So far, this opinion has resulted in the Superior Court of Pennsylvania upholding the dismissal of a manufacturer of a product involved in a serious injury even though the product was deemed defective by the plaintiff's experts. This decision was made in the recent Urbieta v. All-American Hose, LLC, et. al., case. 2019 WL 3385192 (Pa. Super. 2019).
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.
The Pennsylvania Superior Court recently affirmed an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County entering a judgment against American Honda Motor Co., Inc. ("Honda") on a jury verdict of $55,325,714 in a personal injury action. American Honda Motor Co., Inc. v. Martinez, 2017 Pa. Super. LEXIS 271 (Pa. Super. Apr. 19, 2017). Plaintiff in Martinez suffered severe injuries in an automobile accident allegedly as a result of (i) a defectively designed seatbelt and (ii) a failure to warn with respect to the subject car's inability to protect passengers in certain types of accidents. In addition to providing a helpful analysis of design-defect claims after Tincher v. Omega Flex, 104 A.3d 328 (Pa. 2014), the Martinez decision provides guidance as to how Pennsylvania courts analyze causation in a failure-to-warn claim.