The Third Circuit has predicted that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court would abandon Pennsylvania’s peculiar rule of strict liability and join several other states in adopting the form of product liability espoused in the Third Restatement of Torts. Berrier v. Simplicity Manufacturing, Inc., 2009 WL 1054684 (3d Cir. April 21, 2009). My colleague Jim Beck was on the amicus brief for the defense side, and a law school classmate argued for the plaintiffs. But our interest at MassTortDefense was far more than personal: Pennsylvania product liability law has been regarded as including an antiquated and somewhat unnaturally strict version of strict liability, which, in its attempt to distinguish between negligence and 402A strict liability, seemingly precludes any reference to “foreseeability” or “reasonableness” or other negligence-sounding notions. See Lewis v. Coffing Hoist Division, Duff-Norton Co., 528 A.2d 590 (Pa. 1987); Azzarello v. Black Brothers Co., 391 A.2d 1020 (Pa. 1978).
That notion impacted mass tort and products defendants adversely in a number of ways. There is typically no balancing of risks and utility of alternative designs permitted; there is no consideration of comparative fault in strict liability that would reduce a verdict where the plaintiff’s conduct is clearly relevant; only when the plaintiff’s conduct is the “sole cause” of his or her injuries does it become relevant. Similarly, evidence of industry standards was arguably inadmissible in Pennsylvania on strict liability claims as it goes to a defendant’s reasonable care. Some state courts have held that compliance with mandatory government regulations would likewise be inadmissible in strict liability. Accordingly, plaintiffs in cases where Pennsylvania law would apply were not bashful about dismissing their negligence count before trial and relying on this version of strict liability.
In Berrier, the primary issue on appeal was whether Pennsylvania’s strict products liability law extends to a child who was injured when her grandfather backed over her foot while using a riding mower that lacked “back-over” protection. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has never expressly determined if one who is merely a bystander and not a user of a product can bring a products liability claim against a manufacturer to recover for injuries that occur while an intended user is using the manufacturer’s product. So here was a case in which the exclusion of any notion of forseeability (because it smacks of negligence) hits the plaintiff: not being a user and being a “foreseeable plaintiff” or being injured by “foreseeable misuse” shouldn’t be enough under traditional Pennsylvania strict liability law. And that’s what the district court held. Berrier v. Simplicity Corp., 413 F. Supp.2d 431, 442 (E.D. Pa. 2005).
Originally, when faced with the issue, the Third Circuit certified the Third Restatement question to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Berrier v. Simplicity Manufacturing, Inc., 2008 WL 538912 (3d Cir. Jan. 17, 2008). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, however, declined to accept the certified question. Berrier v. Simplicity Manufacturing, Inc., 959 A.2d 900 (Pa. 2008).
Faced with having to decide, the Third Circuit predicted that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court would overturn the 1977 Azzarello case in which it adopted its version of strict liability, and instead adopt the negligence-based standard of the Third Restatement of Torts. If an accurate prediction (and there is a products case before the state Supreme Court at this time, Bugosh v. I.U. North America, Inc., 942 A.2d 897 (Pa. 2008) (question is whether "this Court should apply § 2 of the Restatement (Third) of Torts in place of § 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts.”)), this would seem to afford certain bystanders a cause of action in strict liability under the circumstances here; but it arguably would create a much more balanced version of strict liability, as well.
The Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability, § 2, recognizes a design defect claim when the foreseeable risks of harm posed by the product could have been reduced or avoided by the adoption of a reasonable alternative design by the seller or other distributor, or a predecessor in the commercial chain of distribution, and the omission of the alternative design renders the product not reasonably safe. It recognizes a claim for inadequate instructions or warnings when the foreseeable risks of harm posed by the product could have been reduced or avoided by the provision of reasonable instructions or warnings by the seller or other distributor, or a predecessor in the commercial chain of distribution, and the omission of the instructions or warnings renders the product not reasonably safe.
The court recognized that the Third Restatement therefore eliminates much of the confusion that has resulted from attempting to quarantine negligence concepts and insulate them from strict liability claims. Slip opin. at 40. The Third Circuit relied heavily on the analysis of Justice Saylor in his concurring opinion in Phillips v. Cricket Lighters, 841 A.2d 1000 (Pa. 2003). “We therefore conclude, as Justice Saylor proclaimed in Phillips, that ‘the time has come for this Court . . . to expressly recognize the essential role of risk-utility balancing, a concept derived from negligence doctrine, in design defect litigation.’ 841 A.2d at 1015-16 (Saylor, J., concurring).” And the federal court relied on the conclusion that the Third Restatement is more consistent with the modern trend of law, as well as the evolving policy considerations that led to the adoption in Pennsylvania of Section 402A in the first place.