Pennsylvania Appeals Court Finds Lower Court Erred in Allowing Evidence of Federal Safety Regulations for Strict Products Liability Claim in Crashworthiness Lawsuit
Recently, the Pennsylvania Superior Court addressed the admissibility of evidence in a lawsuit alleging negligence and strict products liability claims against a car manufacturer and a car seat manufacturer. The court turned to recent case law and assessed whether, after a nonsuit was entered on the negligence claim, certain evidence remained admissible for the strict products liability claim.
Mark Webb, the administrator for the estate of Sabino Webb, appealed a judgment in favor of Volvo Cars of North America, LLC, Volvo Cars Corporation (“Volvo”), and Graco Children’s Products, Inc. Mr. Webb alleged various theories of liability, including strict liability and negligence, in a crashworthiness case. The case stemmed from a fatal car crash that took place between a 1997 Volvo Sedan and a Chrysler PT Cruiser. As the Volvo made an unsafe left-hand turn across traffic, it crossed into the path of the oncoming PT Cruiser. The Volvo was struck on the rear passenger side door, and two-month-old Sabino Webb was in his Graco car seat in the rear passenger seat. The baby died, and Mr. Webb brought this action for monetary damages for the death of his son, on behalf of himself and the estate.
Mr. Webb claimed that the Volvo Sedan was defective because it lacked rear door bars that would have prevented side-impact intrusion during a side-impact collision. The allegation against Graco was that the car seat should have had additional padding in the headrest to absorb collision impact.
A jury trial began, a nonsuit was entered on the negligence claim, and the jury entered a defense verdict on the strict products liability cause of action. On appeal, Mr. Webb contended that the trial court should not have instructed the jury that federal standards were relevant after dismissing the negligence claim, as well as making other assertions of error.
The appellate court stated that here, Mr. Webb proceeded on negligence and strict products liability causes of action. Therefore, the record contained evidence relevant to all the causes of action, including the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards for the Graco car seat. Mr. Webb contended this evidence was only relevant to his negligence cause of action, and the jury should have been instructed to disregard it as it related to the products liability claim.
The appellate court stated that a recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court case, Tincher v. Omega Flex, Inc., 104 A. 3d 328 (Pa. 2014), overruled prohibiting government or industry standards evidence in a strict liability design defect case. There, the Court devised a risk-utility standard for a product. The appellate court stated that Tincher will affect products liability cases because parties must either pursue a consumer expectations or a risk-utility theory of strict products liability.
Here, the appellate court stated that the trial court erred in permitting the jury to consider the evidence of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards related to the strict products liability claim. The rule is that evidence of a product’s compliance with government standards is irrelevant, so it is not admissible in an strict products liability action.
The appellate court stated the old Pennsylvania law prohibiting the introduction of negligence concepts in strict products liability claims does not apply. Here, the court stated that a distinction between strict liability and negligence concepts does not exist. Prohibiting evidence of government or industry standards does not apply. The court stated that two theories of strict products liability exist: consumer expectations and risk-utility. Government standards evidence could be admissible under both theories, and the evidence depends on the circumstances.
Here, the court stated that since Mr. Webb brought both negligence and strict liability claims, the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards evidence came in because it was relevant to the negligence claim. The appellate court stated that after nonsuiting the negligence claim, the trial court should have instructed the jury to disregard the evidence. The court stated that they could not conclude the trial court’s error was harmless, and therefore the erroneous jury instruction required a new trial.
The court vacated the judgment and remanded the case, stating that Mr. Webb was entitled to a new trial.
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