PA Supreme Court Issues Important Strict Liability Decision

Pennsylvania has long been a jurisdiction which followed unique, sometimes archaic, rules regarding strict product liability. The state Supreme Court recently issued a significant ruling on product liability law in the Commonwealth, perhaps not surprisingly forging its own path going forward. See Tincher et al. v. Omega Flex Inc., No.17 MAP 2013 (Pa. 11/19/14). Disclosure: your humble blogger assisted in one of the amicus briefs.

The decision came in a complex 130 page opinion; in sum, the opinion gives both plaintiff and defendants some of what they sought, and neither side of the bar all. The Court offered a lengthy survey of the history of tort law in Pennsylvania, as a foundation for its key holdings:

1. declined to adopt the Third Restatement treatment of product defect, opting to maintain a strict liability doctrine rooted in the now half-century old Second Restatement, with a nod to incremental future changes in the common law model.  There was clearly a process-based component to the reasoning, as the Chief Justice noted: “It is difficult to imagine a modern court simply adopting something so broad-based and legislative in character as an outside organization’s Restatement of the Law, even if it is the product of an esteemed organization.”

2. unanimously (believe it or not) overruled the infamous Azzarello v. Black Brothers Company, 391 A.2d 1020 (Pa. 1978), case and its unfair and unworkable attempts to distinguish between strict liability and negligence.

In the underlying case, the defendant was hit with a $1 million jury verdict in connection with allegation about defective steel tubing. According to the plaintiffs, the product had been affected by a lightning strike, and caused their house to burn down.

The defendant's appeal argued in part for the adoption of the Third Restatement, under which a plaintiff alleging a design defect must show that the manufacturer could and should have adopted a reasonable alternative design. Of course, that makes compete sense. Other tests of defect (such as consumer expectations) are amorphous and often unworkable.  And Pennsylvania's traditional standard is so pro-plaintiff as to make a manufacturer the virtual insurer of its products -- which the Second Restatement rejects. That is why two justices wrote in support of the adoption of the Third Restatement.

But all six justices ruling on the case agreed to reject the Azzarello decision, which in practice had juries ruling on the defectiveness of products without any consideration of their risks and utilities. So, in essence, Pennsylvania juries received no guidance on when the product is “safe for its intended use.”  New jury instructions will replace the Azzarello question which asked whether the product lacked any element necessary to make it safe. New jury instructions should be fashioned to be applicable to a particular case.   A plaintiff pursuing a cause upon a theory of strict liability in tort must prove that the product is in a “defective condition.” The plaintiff may prove defect by showing either that (1) the danger is unknowable and unacceptable to the average or ordinary consumer, or that (2) a reasonable person would conclude that the probability and seriousness of harm caused by the product outweigh the burden or costs of taking precautions.

The trial court may choose its own wording as long as the jury charge properly explains the meaning of defective condition. The court thus referenced a two prong standard that allows liability under either consumer expectation or risk-utility tests for defect.  Neither is perfect, and neither will be universally applicable, so plaintiff's choice of a preferred test can be challenged by defense motion practice. The Court recognized, for example, that the consumer expectation test fails at both ends of the spectrum, on obvious dangers and on complex products with dangers that are vague or outside the ordinary consumer’s contemplation.  The Court left for another day the issues regarding manufacturing and warning claims and the interplay with affirmative defenses, and the intended use doctrine.

The overturned precedent also impacted the evidence that was admissible when,as often happened, plaintiffs dropped their negligence count before trial. Going forward, the admissibility of the evidence — even if it arguably implicates negligence concepts — will be decided by trial judges on an incremental basis. Rejection of Azzarello will also mean that judges will no longer do the preliminary risk-utility calculus for the challenged product. Removing risk-utility balancing from the jury turned out to be problematic, as separating risk-utility from the condition of the product is incompatible with basic principles of strict liability.  Risk-utility thus is properly a jury question.

 

State Supreme Court Adopts Consumer Expectation Test for Alleged Food Defects

Our readers know that for nearly 50 years, an ongoing issue in product liability law has been the definition of "defect" within the strict liability context. A subtext to this ongoing discussion has been the appropriate test to apply to food products.  Earlier this month,  the “reasonable consumer expectation” test was adopted for food claims by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in a strict liability claim involving a boneless turkey product. See Pinkham v. Cargill Inc., No. 2012 ME 85 (Me., 7/03/12).

Plaintiff allegedly consumed a hot turkey sandwich during his break.  Defendant  allegedly manufactured the boneless turkey product in the sandwich.  In the middle of or immediately after eating the sandwich, Pinkham allegedly experienced severe and sudden pain in his upper abdominal area and thought that he might be suffering from a heart attack. His doctors later determined that in their opinion he most likely had an “esophageal tear or perforation.” Plaintiff sued, alleging that this was a result of bone in the boneless turkey.

Although 50 percent of all turkey consumed in 1970 was during the holidays, today that number is around 31 percent as more people enjoy turkey year-round. In 2010, U.S. consumption of turkey was 16.4 pounds per person.  And turkey is now a $16 billion annual industry, according to the National Turkey Federation.  Readers will recall that our own Ben Franklin proposed the turkey as the national bird, at least in a letter he wrote to his daughter Sarah on January 26, 1784.

Back to the litigation. Defendant moved for summary judgment. After considering the motion, the trial court granted the motion in favor of Cargill, noting that Maine had not yet established which test to use when evaluating a strict liability claim for an allegedly defective food product pursuant to Maine’s strict liability statute, 14 M.R.S. § 221. The court recognized that, prior to the enactment of the state's strict liability statute, courts used a test similar to the “foreign-natural” doctrine when addressing an injury caused by a food product in an implied warranty of merchantability case. E.g., Kobeckis v. Budzko, 225 A.2d 418, 423 (Me. 1967). Readers will recall that the “foreign-natural” doctrine provides that in general a food producer is not liable for anything found in the food product that naturally exists in the ingredients. E.g., Newton v. Standard Candy Co., 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 21886, at *6 (D. Neb. Mar. 19, 2008).  The major alternative has been the “reasonable expectation” test: which provides that regardless of whether a substance in a food product is natural to an ingredient thereof, liability will lie for injuries caused by the substance where the consumer of the
product would not reasonably have expected to find the substance in the product. E.g., Jackson v. Nestle-Beich, Inc., 589 N.E.2d 547, 548 (Ill. 1992).

The trial court proposed to evaluate the summary judgment motion under both the traditional
“foreign-natural” doctrine and the more recent  “reasonable expectation” test. The lower court concluded that, because bone is naturally found in turkey, and because the average consumer would reasonably expect to find bone fragments up to two millimeters in size in processed “boneless” turkey product (which the doctor had), the contents of the food bolus discovered in plaintiff's esophagus did not demonstrate that the product was defective, as a matter of law.

The supreme court noted that the state's strict liability approach was rooted in the Second Restatement.  It observed that the Restatement comments define “[d]efective condition” in part as a product that is “in a condition not contemplated by the ultimate consumer.” Restatement (Second) of Torts § 402A cmt. g. The comments also define “[u]nreasonably dangerous”: “The article sold must be dangerous to an extent beyond that which would be contemplated by the ordinary
consumer who purchases it, with the ordinary knowledge common to the community as to its characteristics.” Id. cmt. i.  Relying on these comments, the court moved to the reasonable expectations test.

Applying that standard, the supreme court ruled that plaintiff had provided sufficient evidence that an alleged defect in the boneless turkey product he consumed might have caused his surgery-requiring injury. There was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the turkey product caused the injury. One doctor testified that he believed that the injury was a “perforation secondary to a foreign body.”  There was direct evidence of the presence of the smaller pieces of bone or cartilage.  While there was no direct evidence of a larger piece of bone, the court thought a jury could conclude that a larger piece of bone could have been present in the turkey product Pinkham consumed, but may have passed, undetected, from Pinkham’s throat.

Whether a consumer would reasonably expect to find a particular item in a food product is normally a question of fact that is left to a jury.  The court concluded that the trial court could not find as a matter of law that a food bolus containing one-to-two-millimeter bone fragments is not defective.  The question of whether a consumer would reasonably expect to find a turkey bone or a bone
fragment large and/or sharp enough to cause an esophageal perforation in a “boneless” turkey product "s one best left to the fact-finder" said the court.

 

Expert May Be Needed on Design Defect, Even Under Consumer Expectations Test

Back when we taught Products Liability in law school, one of the topics that always got significant attention and discussion from the bright-eyed students was how to define "defect." The panoply of tests for defective or unreasonably dangerous products never failed to excite discussion, particularly the role of consumer expectations in product assessment.

That same topic is the focus of an interesting recent decision in the Seventh Circuit. See Show v. Ford Motor Co., Nos. 10-2428 and 10-2637 (7th Cir.,  9/19/11).

Plaintiffs were involved in a motor vehicle accident in a 1993 Ford Explorer;  they sued Ford, alleging design defect. In products liability cases in which the plaintiff alleges a design defect, Illinois (whose law supplied the substantive rules) permits the claim to be established in either
of two ways. First, the plaintiff may introduce evidence that the product failed to perform as safely as an ordinary consumer would  expect when used in an intended or reasonably foreseeable manner. This has come to be known as the consumer expectation test. Second, the plaintiff may introduce evidence that the product’s design proximately caused his injury, when the benefits of the challenged design do not outweigh the risk of danger inherent in such design. This test, which adds the balancing of risks and benefits to the alternative design and feasibility inquiries, has come to be known as the risk-utility or risk-benefit test.

Here, plaintiffs proceeded under the first prong, and offered no expert opinion. Ford moved for summary judgment in light of the absence of expert testimony. Plaintiffs conceded that testimony by an engineer or other design expert was essential when a claim rests on the risk-utility approach. But, they argued that jurors, as consumers, can find in their own experience all of the necessary opinions under the consumer expectation test. The district court sided with the defense, and plaintiffs appealed.

The court first discussed a very interesting preliminary question. The parties assumed, as did the lower court, that state law in this diversity case determined whether expert testimony was essential. The assumption rested on a belief that the quality of proof is part of the claim’s substantive elements, which in turn depend on state law under the Erie doctrine even when substantive doctrine is implemented through federal evidentiary rules.  However, there was a question whether Illinois treats the risk-utility and consumer expectations approaches as distinct substantive law doctrines, or merely as procedural aspects of the general question: is the product unreasonably dangerous. Perhaps the two tests are not theories of liability; they could be considered methods of proof by which a plaintiff may demonstrate that the element of unreasonable dangerousness is met.  If the consumer expectation test is not an independent theory of liability, perhaps federal rather than state law determines whether expert evidence is essential on it. Federal law often requires expert evidence about consumers' knowledge and behavior, because jurors are supposed to decide on the basis of the record rather than their own intuitions and assumptions. If federal courts require expert evidence, rather than relying solely on jurors' experience, in trademark and credit suits, for example, why not in product defect cases, asked the court?  But the court decided to bypass the question, in light of the parties' positions below. 

Turning to the consumer expectations issue, the court felt that plaintiffs’ argument that jurors should be able to rely on their own expectations as consumers reflected a belief that “expectations” are all that matters. Yet because the consumer expectations approach is just a means of getting at some of the issues that bear on the question whether a product is unreasonably dangerous, it is impossible to dispense with expert knowledge, concluded the panel.  The design defect is tied up in the issue of causation. Did the design decisions that went into the 1993 Ford Explorer even contribute to the rollover? Causation is a question about physics, and design options are the province of engineers. Jurors own cars, but people own lots of products without being able to explain (or even understand) the principles behind their construction and operation.  Unguided intuitions will not solve the equations. Without an expert’s assistance the decision would depend on speculation, which cannot establish causation—an issue on which plaintiffs bear both the burden of production and the risk of non-persuasion.

Because consumer expectations are just one factor in the inquiry whether a product is unreasonably dangerous, a jury unassisted by expert testimony would have to rely on speculation. The record here did not show whether 1993 Explorers were unduly (or unexpectedly) dangerous, because the record (absent an expert) lacked evidence about many issues, such as: (a) under what circumstances they roll over; (b) under what circumstances consumers expect them to do so whether it would be possible to reduce the rollover rate; and (d) whether a different and safer design would have averted this particular accident. All of these are subjects on which plaintiffs bear the burden of proof. There are other issues too, such as whether the precautions needed to curtail the rate of rollovers would be cost-justified.

The absence of expert evidence on these subjects was fatal to plaintiffs’ suit.

 

State Supreme Court Adopts Risk Utility Test for Defect

The South Carolina Supreme Court last week vacated a $31 million verdict for a minor injured in a Ford Bronco rollover accident.  Branham v. Ford Motor Co., 2010 WL 3219499 (S.C. 8/16/10).  The case raises a number of interesting points for our readers.

This was a product liability action involving a Ford Bronco II.   Hale was driving the vehicle with several children as passengers, including her daughter seated in the front passenger seat.  No one was wearing a seat belt.  Hale admittedly took her eyes off the road and turned to the backseat to ask the children to quiet down. When she took her eyes off the road, the Bronco veered towards the shoulder of the road, and the rear right wheel left the roadway. She responded by over-correcting to the left, which allegedly led the vehicle to roll over.

Plaintiff, the parent of one of the injured passengers, sued. The case against Ford was based on two product liability claims, one a defective seat belt sleeve claim, and the other, a “handling and stability” design defect claim related to the vehicle's alleged tendency to rollover.  The jury returned a verdict of $16,000,000 in actual damages and $15,000,000 in punitive damages.

The trial court had dismissed the strict liability claim regarding the seat belt on the basis that the sleeve was not defective as a matter of law. But the negligence claim shared with the strict liability claim the element that the product be in a dangerous condition unreasonably dangerous. The trial court should thus have dismissed it too, the supreme court said.

The court also found that the closing argument of Branham's counsel was designed to and likely did inflame and prejudice the jury. The closing argument relied heavily on inadmissible evidence to pump up the punitives claim in requesting that the jury punish Ford.  This closing argument invited the jury to base its verdict on passion rather than reason, and the supreme court found that it denied Ford a fair trial.

But the more interesting part of the case related to Ford's two-fold argument that: (1) Branham failed to prove a reasonable alternative design pursuant to the risk-utility test; and (2) South Carolina law requires a risk-utility test in design defect cases to the exclusion of the consumer expectations test. 

The court found that plaintiff had produced sufficient evidence of a feasible alternative design to get to a jury.  But, while the consumer expectations test may fit well in manufacturing defect cases, the court agreed with Ford that the test is ill-suited in design defect cases. It thus held that the exclusive test in a products liability design case is the risk-utility test, with its requirement of showing a feasible alternative design.

The very nature of feasible alternative design evidence entails the manufacturer's decision to employ one design over another. This weighing of costs and benefits attendant to that decision is the essence of the risk-utility test.  The court noted that this approach is in accord with the current Restatement (Third) of Torts.  The court noted that the Third Restatement effectively moved away from the consumer expectations test for design defects, and towards a risk-utility test.  While the feasible alternative design inquiry is the core of the risk-utility balancing test in design defect cases, the court went out of its way to note that a jury question is NOT created merely because a product can be made safer. There is a longstanding principle that a product is not in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous merely because it “can be made more safe.” 

 The court sent the case back for a new trial.