Friday, July 6, 2018

Summary Judgment Reversed in Alleged Misuse of a Safety Harness in a Products Liability Case

In its recent decision in the case of Zimmerman v. Andrew, No. 662 WDA 2017 (Pa. Super. June 1, 2018 Bowes, J., Panella, J. and Stabile, J.) (Op. by Bowes, J.), the Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed a trial court’s entry of summary judgment in favor of a Defendant in a products liability case.  

According to the Opinion, the Plaintiff was injured when a safety harness he was utilizing while cutting down a tree allegedly failed when the Plaintiff was 35 feet up in a tree and the Plaintiff fell to the ground and sustained personal injuries.  

The record before the court indicated that the Plaintiff had gone to the home of his friend to cut down a dead tree at the request of the friend.   The friend had obtained the harness from another friend who had purchased the harness but never used it.   The harness came with paper instructions.  

The Plaintiff skimmed the instructions but did not thoroughly read the instructions.   The Plaintiff also admittedly saw a warning label on the harness itself but did not read it completely.  

The Plaintiff, who had limited personal experience using a harness in construction work and from seeing them used on television programs featuring people cutting trees, thought the use of the harness was self-explanatory.  

However, the Plaintiff and his friend put the harness on the Plaintiff backwards.  

Thereafter, when the Plaintiff utilized the harness to bear his weight high up in the tree, the harness failed and the Plaintiff fell to the ground.  

The Plaintiff sued the manufacturer of the harness under claims of strict product liability, negligence, and breach of warranty.  

The Plaintiff more specifically alleged that the harness was sold with insufficient strength and durability such that it was unreasonably dangerous.  The Plaintiff also asserted that the harness was sold with inadequate warnings regarding the proper use of the device.  

In its defense, the Defendant asserted the defenses of misuse of the product and comparative negligence.  

More specifically, the Defendant asserted that the harness was intended for use on construction projects by workers trained on how to use it and that the Plaintiff’s use of the device in a tree without training was a misuse, not an intended use, and further was not foreseeable.  The defense also asserted that the Plaintiff was wearing the harness backwards.

The trial court had entered summary judgment after finding that “[t]here is absolutely nothing that we would make a manufacturer think that” someone would use the product as the Plaintiff did and that “it would be a waste of time to take this to a jury” because the jury would have to find in favor of the Defendant if they followed the court’s instructions as to the law.  

On appeal, the Pennsylvania Superior Court reviewed the current status of Pennsylvania strict liability law under §402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts as well as under general negligence principles given the Plaintiff’s separate claims in this regard.   The Superior Court confirmed that, under the current status of Pennsylvania law, the Plaintiff’s use of the harness in an unforeseeable or highly reckless manner could serve to defeat the Plaintiff’s §402A claim.  

Citing to Reott v. Asia Trend, Inc., 55 A.3d 1088, 1097 (Pa. 2012), the Superior Court noted that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had recognized that product misuse and highly-reckless conduct are affirmative defenses to a strict liability claim.   According to Reott, to establish a misuse of the product, the Defendant must show that the use was “unforeseeable or outrageous.”  

The Reott court had noted that highly reckless conduct is akin to evidence of misuse and requires the Defendant to prove that the Plaintiff would have been injured despite the curing of the alleged product defect, or that the misuse of the product by the plaintiff was so extraordinary and unforeseeable as to constitute a superseding cause.  

The court in this Zimmerman case went on to note, citing other precedent, that it is “well-settled that a plaintiff’s misuse of a product cannot be grounds for granting summary judgment in favor of the manufacturer under a designed defect theory unless it is established that the misuse solely caused the accident while the design defect did not contribute to it.”   See Op. 8. [emphasis in Zimmerman].

In this Zimmerman decision, the court pointed to various issues of fact, along with issues raised by the parties' experts, to  conclude that the Plaintiff tendered sufficient evidence that, if accepted by the jury, would establish that the harness was defective, that the Defendant was negligent in the product’s design and instructions, and that these deficiencies were a proximate cause of the Plaintiff’s injuries.  

As such, the Superior Court found that it was error for the trial court to rule on the record before it that the Plaintiff’s misuse of the harness was the sole cause of the accident. 

The Superior Court also ruled that there were material issues of fact relative to the negligence issues such that the Plaintiff’s negligence claims should also be allowed to proceed to the jury.  

In light of the its other conclusions, the Superior Court additionally allowed the Plaintiff’s breach of warranty claim to also proceed to the jury.  

Anyone wishing to review a copy of this decision may click this LINK.

I send thanks to Attorney Kenneth T. Newman of the Pittsburgh office of Thomas Thomas & Hafer for bringing this case to my attention.

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