Friday, June 11, 2010

Opinion by Judge Terrence R. Nealon Clarifying Products Liability Issue

On June 4, 2010, Judge Terrence R. Nealon of the Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas issued a decision in the case of Erie Insurance Exchange v. Wayne/Scott Fetzer Company, No. 06 CIV 1506 (Lacka. Co. June 4, 2010 Nealon, J.) allowing a negligent design products liability claim to proceed to trial even though the court had previously dismissed strict liability allegations in the Complaint.

In this matter, Erie commenced a subrogation lawsuit to recover fire loss damages that allegedly occurred at the Erie insured's residence as a result of a utility pump that had been manufactured by the Wayne/Scott Fetzer Company [Fetzer].

During the course of the litigation, the trial court granted Fetzer's motion for summary judgment on Erie's defective product claim under an argument by the manufacturer of a non-intended use of the product by the homeowner.

More specifically, it was established that the homeowner had admittedly altered the utility pump's design by installing an automatic switch that allowed the pump to run continuously while unattended and without the thermal protection required for continuous use. The manufacturer alleged that this non-intended use allowed the pump to overheat and start the fire.

The trial court had previously granted summary judgment in this case on the strict liability portion of the claim as, under the Pennsylvania rule of law set forth in Pennsylvania Dept. of General Services v. United States Mineral Products Co., 898 A.2d 590, 600 (Pa. 2006), "there is no strict liability in Pennsylvania relative to non-intended uses even where foreseeable by the manufacturer."

Based upon that rule of law, Judge Nealon previously held in the case that Fetzer could not be found liable for a design defect in the utility pump where the homeowner materially altered the product's design for an unintended use. The court did, however, allow the defective product claim to proceed based upon a failure-to-warn theory as there were issues of fact present on the issue of whether Fetzer provided adequate warnings that advised of the risks of continuous use of the product in terms of overheating.

This most recent decision being reported on here was issued by Judge Nealon to address Erie's stated intention to also advance a negligent product design theory at trial under an argument that such a claim survived the dismissal of the strict liability claim.

Fetzer contended that Erie was precluded from proceeding on this claim as the court had already determined during the motion for summary judgment proceedings that the utility pump could not be deemed to have been defectively designed as manufactured. Fetzer also argued that the claim should not be allowed because Erie allegedly could not make out a prima facie case of negligence in that it could not be shown that the product itself was defective.

In response, Erie pointed to expert evidence it intended to present at trial in support of its negligent product design theory. This evidence allegedly established a defect in the product as manufactured that allowed for overheating.

In his opinion, Judge Nealon reviewed a number of federal and state appellate decisions that abrogated the previous evidentiary requirement that a plaintiff pursuing a product liability negligence claim prove that the product was defective under strict liability principles in addition to establishing that the manufacturer failed to use reasonable care in designing the product.

Judge Nealon noted that those cases viewed strict liability and negligence as distinct legal theories. Strict liability looks at the product itself and does not concern itself with the reasonableness of the actions of the manufacturer. On the other hand, negligence claims against a manufacturer focuses on the conduct of the defendant. Thus, these cases reviewed by Judge Nealon stand for the proposition that it would be improper to dismiss a negligence claim against a manufacturer simply the basis that there was no defect in the product itself.

As such, Judge Nealon noted that the "decisional precedent has consistently recognized that a finding that a product is not defective does not foreclose a manufacturer's liability for negligence."

Judge Nealon therefore held that, although he previously granted summary judgment in favor of the defense on the strict liability claim, Erie was not precluded from pursuing its negligence claim that the defendant manufacturer negligently failed to exercise reasonable care by failing to provide thermal protection capabilities in the product. Accordingly, the plaintiff Erie was allowed to proceed to trial on its negligent design claim.


Anyone desiring a copy of Judge Nealon's Opinion in the case of Erie Ins. Exchange v. Wayne/Scott Fetzer Company may contact me at dancummins@comcast.net.

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