Thursday, December 22, 2022

Chief Judge Matthew W. Brann of Middle District Addresses Admissibility of Alleged Contributory Negligence of Plaintiff in Products Case

In the case of Cote v. Schnell Industries, No. 4:18-CV--1440 (M.D. Pa. Nov. 8, 2022 Brann, J.), the court addressed several issues with respect to the admissibility of alleged misconduct by a Plaintiff in a products liability case.

According to the Opinion, this case involved a machine involved in a workplace accident that nearly severed the Plaintiff's hand.

The court noted that a Plaintiff’s comparative negligence is not admissible in a strict liability action, except as a superceding cause where the Plaintiff is the sole cause of the accident. The court otherwise noted that negligence that relates to the product itself cannot be a sole cause.

Here, the court found that the Plaintiff’s conduct in putting his hand in a dangerous position in the product relates to the product and was, therefore, inadmissible to be used against the Plaintiff.

The court also noted that the Plaintiff’s conduct is not relevant to the consumer expectation or risk-utility factors applicable to a products liability action because these tests to determine a product defect are concerned with the actions of an “ordinary” person, and not any particular Plaintiff.

However, the court did note that evidence of a Plaintiff’s voluntary assumption of the risks, misuse of a product, or highly reckless conduct is admissible to prove the issue of causation.

Chief Judge Matthew W. Brann
M.D. Pa.

Chief Judge Matthew W. Brann stated that, under Pennsylvania law, the assumption of the risk doctrine requires a knowing and voluntary exposure of oneself to a known risk. The court found that his assumption of the risk doctrine is inapplicable where a Plaintiff was required to use equipment provided by an employer.

Judge Brann additionally noted that product misuse and highly reckless conduct involve a Plaintiff’s unforeseeable, outrageous, and extraordinary use of a product. Whether a Plaintiff’s conduct meets this standard is for a jury to decide.

However, because a Plaintiff’s misuse and highly reckless conduct cannot be a sole cause of the accident, the court found the evidence of such conduct was inadmissible. 

On another issue before the Court, Judge Brann additionally noted that the Defendants could not use a Motion In Limine as a belated substitute for a Rule 702 motion relative to the competency of an expert’s opinion.

Anyone wishing to review a copy of this decision may click this LINK.  The Court's companion Order can be viewed HERE

I thank Attorney James M. Beck of the Philadelphia office of the Reed Smith law firm for bringing this case to my attention.

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