Thursday, October 22, 2009

Products Liability: Pennsylvania Supreme Court Clarifies Burden of Proof in Malfunction Theory Case

In the recent October 2, 2009 case of Barnish v. KWI Building Co., 2009 WL 3161492 (Pa. 2009), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court unanimously clarified the burden of proof on a malfunction theory claim in a products liability action.

The case revolved around a spark detection device that was designed to detect sparks along a conveyor belt system through the use of multiple sensors.

On February 13, 2001, employees of one of the co-defendants were using a torch outside of the factory. Sparks allegedly entered the building through a gap in the wall and landed on the conveyor belt, which was transporting combustible materials. An explosion and fire killed two workers and injured others. Suit was brought against multiple defendants including the manufacturer of the spark detection device.

The Plaintiffs alleged that the sensors were defective under a strict products liability claim. However, the Plaintiffs were unable to present direct evidence of a defect in the sensors because the sensors were lost after the explosion. Therefore, the Plaintiffs attempted to proceed under the malfunction theory. Under this theory, the law allowed the Plaintiff to proceed on circumstantial evidence.

However, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the decisions of the trial court and the Superior Court that the Plaintiff had failed to present sufficient circumstantial evidence to get beyond a summary judgment motion and proceed to the jury.

More specifically, the Supreme Court noted that although the Plaintiffs presented evidence of a malfunction and expert testimony that the injuries resulted from the malfunction, the Plaintiffs' failed to present required evidence, circumstantial or direct, that the product was defective at the time it left the manufacturer’s control.

The Court was influenced by the fact that the Plaintiffs failed to present any explanation as to how the sensors could function properly for ten years prior to the subject incident and yet be defective at the time the sensors left the manufacturer’s control. The court held that the Plaintiff’s acknowledgment of prior successful use of the device undermined the inference that the product was defective when it left the manufacturer’s control.

As such, the Court held that a plaintiff who admits that the product functioned properly in the past must present some evidence explaining how the product could be defective when it left the manufacturer’s control and yet still function properly for a period of time. As evidence of this kind was not produced by the Plaintiff in this matter, the Court affirmed the entry of summary judgment in favor of the manufacturer of the spark detection device.

According to a October 12, 2009 article, "Proving a Dormant Defect" by Peter Hall in the Pennsylvania Law Weekly commentators have viewed this decision as reinforcing the malfunction theory as a valid basis of recovery and as providing clarity on the burden of proof, particularly at the summary judgment stage, under that theory of recovery in products liability decisions.

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