Product Liability Case Granted A New Trial

The Superior Court has granted a new trial in a strict products liability case arising out of the tragic death of an infant in a car crash. The baby had been securely fastened into an infant car seat in the back row of the family's Volvo 850.  Upon impact, the rear car door buckled in, and the baby's head slammed against the hard plastic shell of the unpadded infant car seat, causing the baby to suffer fatal brain injury. 

Strict products liability and negligence claims were brought against the car and infant car seat manufacturers. The claims against Volvo were premised on its removal of a key safety feature from its rear doors, a steel structural member to prevent the doors from caving in on passengers in the event of a crash. The infant car seat manufacturer was sued for its failure to provide a padded head restraint.

The manufacturers contended they were entitled to defend against the negligence claims by presenting evidence their products satisfied federal safety standards. Motions to preclude their evidence were denied. However, shortly before the case went to the jury, the trial court dismissed the negligence claims. The plaintiff promptly requested that the jury be instructed to disregard the evidence regarding governmental safety standards, as the trial court's ruling left only the strict products liability claims and our appellate courts have held evidence regarding government or industry safety standards is irrelevant in actions for strict products liability. The request was refused.

On appeal, the plaintiff continued to press the argument that the jury should have been instructed to disregard this evidence. The manufacturers raised a new argument in reply: that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's Tincher decision, handed down in the interim, required the trial court's ruling.

The Pennsylvania Association for Justice (PAJ), a non-profit organization promoting the rights of individual citizens through advocacy since 1968, participated on that issue. The Vice-Chair of the PAJ's amicus committee, Barbara Axelrod of this firm, wrote the brief on the Association's behalf arguing Tincher did not purport to overrule the decisions barring evidence of government or industry safety standards in a strict products liability action (the Court's own decision in Lewis and the intermediate appellate decisions of Gaudio and Harsh). To the contrary, the Court had explicitly embraced judicial restraint and only addressing the impact of its new decision in the context of and as required by the facts and circumstances of the particular case. Ms. Axelrod also demonstrated that this was not an appropriate case in which to do so: it had been brought and tried prior to Tincher, and the manufacturers had not argued for the overruling of Azzarello, let alone the decisions holding government or industry standards irrelevant in a strict products liability action. 

The Superior Court concluded that "the overruling of Azzarello does not provide this panel with a sufficient basis for disregarding the evidentiary rule expressed in Lewis & Gaudio" and that, "after nonsuiting the negligence claims, the trial court could and should have instructed the jury to disregard the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards evidence." The Court noted that, unlike the defense in Tincher, these manufacturers "were not advocating for the overruling of binding precedent" and concluded that "the continued vitality of the prohibition on government and industry standards is a question best addressed in a post-Tincher case."

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