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.

 

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.

 

Proof of Feasible Alternative Design Does Not Prove Defect

Readers know that most jurisdictions require that a plaintiff alleging a design defect in a product must produce sufficient evidence of a feasible alternative design that would have avoided the plaintiff's injury had it been adopted.  But a Texas appeals court reminded us recently that evidence of a safer alternative design, while necessary, is not sufficient to show a design defect. Zavala v. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp., No. 08-10-00169-CV (Tex. App., 8th Dist., 8/24/11).

Plaintiff filed suit against the railroad, alleging personal injuries sustained while attempting to open an allegedly defective railcar hopper door to unload sugar. Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, which the trial court granted, and Zavala appealed.

Plaintiff alleged a manufacturing defect, but he could not identify the exact car which injured him or pinpoint any specific defect on that car. He did not see the hopper car again, but he identified the opening mechanism on a BNSF model 450 car as the “same or substantially similar hopper loading mechanism I was injured on.”  The court concluded that since he could not identify the specific car which caused his injuries, he must show more than a scintilla of evidence that all BNSF model 450 cars possess a manufacturing defect. That he could not do.

The court then turned to the alleged design defect. The defect was the alleged unreasonably
dangerous condition of the hopper car opening mechanism. Texas courts apply a risk-utility analysis to design defects that requires consideration of the following factors: (1) the utility of the product to the user and to the public as a whole weighed against the gravity and likelihood of injury from its use; (2) the availability of a substitute product design which would meet the same need and not be unsafe or unreasonably expensive; (3) the manufacturer’s ability to eliminate the unsafe character of the product without seriously impairing its usefulness or significantly increasing its costs; (4) the user’s anticipated awareness of the dangers inherent in the product and their avoidability because of general public knowledge of the obvious condition of the product, or of the existence of suitable warnings or instructions; and (5) the expectations of the ordinary consumer.  The risk-utility analysis operates in the context of the product’s intended use and its intended users.

The court of appeals reasoned that global assertions that all model 450 doors were defective because they were all hard to open does not create more than a mere suspicion of a defect. It refused to hold that a hard-to-open door is necessarily a malfunction, or that circumstantial proof of a hard-to-open door suffices to demonstrate a design defect.

Plaintiff pointed to his expert evidence of an alleged feasible alternative design for the hopper door. Although evidence of an alternative safer design may assist in proving a design defect, proof of an alleged safer alternative design is not enough to sustain a defective design claim, concluded the court of appeals. See also Hernandez v. Tokai Corp., 2 S.W.3d 251, 256 (Tex. 1999)(proof of an alternative safer design does not negate the common law requirement that the alleged defect renders the product unreasonably dangerous).  A design defect claim arises if a safer alternative design existed and there is a defect that was a producing cause of the personal injury, property damage, or death for which the claimant seeks recovery.

Here, plaintiff failed to produce sufficient evidence to create an issue of fact on defect, even if he did have evidence of a feasible alternative design.  In essence, the court recognized that there can be more than one non-defective way to design a product. There may be different pluses and minuses in each design, and the existence of an alternative does not render all other alternatives necessarily defective.

 

Plaintiff's Constitutional Challenge to EMF's Rejected

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit last week upheld the trial court's dismissal of a plaintiff's allegations that several utilities exposed her to high levels of electromagnetic fields in violation of the U.S. Constitution. Barnett v. Carberry,  No.10-1342-cv (2d Cir. 4/20/11).

Here at MassTortDefense we often explore the creative approaches of the plaintiffs' bar.  Here's a real "creative" one.

Plaintiff brought a purported Section 1983 civil rights action against a state licensing agency and  several  utility companies alleging that they exposed her home to unusually high levels of electromagnetic fields ("EMFs") in violation of her property and privacy rights and her rights to due process and equal protection of law.  Barnett claimed that she and her husband suffer from significant health problems allegedly caused by EMF emissions from a power line located 40 feet away from their home. They also allege that their home is now unmarketable.

The district court rejected the federal claims and declined to exercise jurisdiction over any pendent state law claims. On appeal, Barnett emphasized that she was not asking the court to declare that there is a constitutional right to a healthful environment. See MacNamara v. Cnty. Council of Sussex Cnty., 738 F. Supp. 134, 141-43 (D. Del.), aff'd, 922 F.2d 832 (3d Cir. 1990). Rather, she was asking that the court recognize that the asserted constitutional right to be safe and secure in one's home includes the right to be free from an "unreasonable" level of EMFs under the First, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments.

The court of appeals reviewed the relevant case law and, not surprisingly, concluded that no case establishes a constitutional or common-law privacy or property right to be free from an unreasonable level of EMFs.  The related privacy argument asserted, at best, that the government and utilities "failed" to protect her home from EMF emissions -- again never recognized. To the extent that plaintiff  challenged defendants for permitting her home to be "intruded upon" by unreasonably high levels of EMFs, she was forced to concede at argument that no legislature or administrative agency has even determined what levels of EMFs would be "unreasonably high." Indeed, that is a scientific policy question better decided by the legislature than the courts. Cf. City of New Orleans v. Dukes, 427 U.S. 297, 303 (1976) (stating that the judiciary may not "sit as a super-legislature to judge the wisdom or desirability of legislative polic[ies]" in areas that do not implicate fundamental rights or suspect classifications); Cellular Phone Taskforce v. FCC, 205 F.3d 82, 91 (2d Cir. 2000) (characterizing argument that agency should increase safety margin as "a policy question, not a legal one").

Plaintiffs, at least for now, need to stick to conventional tort theories. And defense counsel won't get to practice toxic torts and constitutional law at the same time.

 

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.

State Supreme Court Affirms Summary Judgment Under Risk-Utility Test

The Texas Supreme Court last week upheld summary judgment in a design defect case, finding that under the risk-utility test, the commercial trailer at issue was not defective as a matter of law. See Timpte Industries Inc. v. Gish, Texas, No. 08-0043, (6/5/09).

Readers of MassTortDefense recognize that in a strict products liability claim, the risk-utility test has been the dominant test of "defectiveness" employed by state courts. The opinion offers an interesting example of the potential relevance of an obvious design risk (even in a jurisdiction that has rejected the obvious danger rule), and the interplay of warnings and design issues.

Plaintiff Gish was seriously injured when he fell from the top of a commercial “Super Hopper” trailer into which he was attempting to load fertilizer. He sued Timpte, the manufacturer of the trailer, alleging, among other things, that several features of the trailer were defectively designed, rendering the trailer unreasonably dangerous. The Super Hopper trailer is a standard open-top, twin hopper trailer, which is loaded from above through use of a downspout or other device and is emptied through two openings on its bottom. Once the trailer is loaded, a tarp is rolled over the top
to protect its contents.  A ladder and an observation platform are attached to the front and rear of the trailer to allow the operator to view its contents.

The downspout that was loading fertilizer into the trailer was not lowering properly on the day of the accident.  Gish pulled on a rope to lower it, but that was unsuccessful, so he climbed up the front platform ladder and climbed onto the top rail to work with the downspout. A gust of wind hit him from the back, causing him to fall.

Plaintiff alleged defects in the top two rungs of the ladders attached to the front and rear of the trailer which allowed a person to climb atop the trailer; and a defect as to the top rail of the trailer, which was allegedly too narrow and slippery and contained too many tripping hazards for a person to walk safely along it.

To recover for a products liability claim alleging a design defect, under Texas law, a plaintiff must prove that (1) the product was defectively designed so as to render it unreasonably dangerous; (2) a safer alternative design existed; and (3) the defect was a producing cause of the injury for which the plaintiff seeks recovery. To determine whether a product was defectively designed so as to render it unreasonably dangerous, Texas courts have long applied a form of the risk-utility analysis that requires consideration of the following factors: (a) the utility of the product to the user and to the public as a whole weighed against the gravity and likelihood of injury from its use; (b) the availability of a substitute which would meet the same need and not be unsafe or unreasonably expensive; (c) the manufacturer’s ability to eliminate the unsafe character of the product without seriously impairing its usefulness or significantly increasing its costs; (d) the user’s anticipated awareness of the dangers inherent in the product and their avoidability because of general public knowledge of the obvious condition of the product, or of the existence of suitable warnings or instructions; and (e) the expectations of the ordinary consumer.

The court emphasized that risk-utility analysis does not operate in a vacuum, but rather in the context of the product’s intended use and its intended users. Specifically, while Texas has rejected the “open and obvious danger rule” under which obvious risks are not design defects which must be remedied, the obviousness of the claimed defect is an important consideration in determining whether the product is unreasonably dangerous -- and may even be decisive in a particular case.

Essentially, Gish complained that the trailer’s design failed to prevent him from climbing atop the trailer and then, once he was up there, failed to protect him from the risk of falling. The court found no evidence, however, that the top rail of the trailer was unreasonably dangerous in light of its use and purpose. The risk of falling while trying to balance on a 5 inch wide strip of extruded aluminum nearly ten feet above the ground is an obvious risk that is certainly within the ordinary knowledge common to the community. Timpte warned users to always maintain three-point contact with the trailer, which is impossible for a user standing on the top rail. Had Gish adhered to this warning, his accident would not have happened. Additionally, widening the side walls of the trailer so as to convert the top rail into a safe walkway, as Gish’s expert proposed, would have increased the cost and weight of the trailer while decreasing its utility.

Moreover, Gish’s injury was only remotely related to the ladder’s top two rungs: they allowed him to climb atop the trailer, where he was subsequently injured. Timpte warned users not to use the ladder to climb into the trailer itself, and the obvious nature of the risk of climbing onto the top rail negated  the need for any additional warning. The two top rungs were necessary to maintain the stability of the ladder and provide an emergency handhold in the event someone slips on the ladder. Their utility was high, the court concluded, and Gish's injury was “only remotely related” to those rungs.