Federal Court Grants Summary Judgment to Strict Product Liability Defendant in Case Proceeding Under Tincher’s Consumer Expectations Standard

March 29, 2017

To prevail on a strict product liability claim under Pennsylvania law, a plaintiff must prove the product at issue is defective, the defect existed when the product left defendant’s hands, and the defect caused the harm. A product may be defective based on a manufacturing or design defect, or based on a failure to warn. Regardless of the theory, a plaintiff must satisfy one of two standards (or both) to show a product is defective: (i) a consumer expectations standard; and/or (ii) a risk-utility standard. In the wake of Tincher v. Omega Flex, Inc., 104 A.3d 328 (Pa. 2014), Pennsylvania courts continue to define the contours of these standards, and a recent decision from the Western District of Pennsylvania, Igwe v. Skaggs, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 99622 (W.D. Pa. Jun. 28, 2017), adds clarity to the consumer expectations standard in particular.

In Igwe, the court granted summary judgment to a product defendant in a wrongful death matter where the plaintiff relied solely on the consumer expectations standard. Under this standard, a product “is in a defective condition if the danger is unknowable and unacceptable to the average or ordinary consumer.” Tincher, 104 A.3d at 387. The Igwe decision contains a clear analysis of the standard and is an example of how Pennsylvania courts may find that there was no unknowable and unacceptable danger as a matter of law.

The product at issue in Igwe was an emergency vehicle preemption system used to assist emergency vehicles approaching traffic signals. The system was designed to transmit an electronic signal from an emergency vehicle to a traffic controller device to request a light change at an approaching intersection. Plaintiff alleged the system was defectively designed because an emergency vehicle traveling at a high rate of speed could outrun the system – i.e., “an emergency vehicle may encounter a red traffic signal if it travels faster than the time it takes for the signal to change to green.” Igwe, 2017 U.S. Dist LEXIS 99662 at *7. In this instance, a police officer outpaced the system, ran a red light, and hit another vehicle crossing the intersection. The driver of the other vehicle died from injuries sustained in the crash.

The court’s decision in Igwe raises a number of issues to consider when defending a claim under the consumer expectations standard. First, plaintiff’s claim may hinge on whether the plaintiff or some other person or entity was the actual consumer with respect to the product at issue. Typically, the injured person is the consumer – i.e., the purchaser or intended user of the product. In Igwe, however, the plaintiff was not the product user, but rather was “an innocent driver who happened to be lawfully crossing the intersection when the officer sped through a red light.” From plaintiff’s perspective, the risk arguably was unknowable and unacceptable. Plaintiff’s claim failed, however, because the consumer expectation standard was applied from the perspective of the purchaser and user of the system. Undisputed evidence established that the police officer and key members of the Police Department and Public Works understood and appreciated the risk of outpacing the system. Based on this factor, there was no “unknowable and unacceptable” danger. Id. at *26.

Second, evidence sufficient to defeat a design defect claim under the consumer expectations standard also may be sufficient to defeat a failure-to-warn claim. In Igwe, the court found that the officer and police department received sufficient warnings about the danger of outpacing the system. Irrespective of this finding, however, plaintiff would have had difficulty establishing causation, which requires proof that the warning sought would have changed the result. As discussed, undisputed evidence established that the police officer understood and appreciated the danger of outpacing the system. Moreover, the officer testified he was not relying on the system to change the light when the accident occurred. In light of this testimony, further warnings arguably would not have changed the result.

Finally, although not addressed by the court in Igwe, this matter raises an important, unresolved issue with respect to bystander liability that parties continue to dispute in Pennsylvania. Product defendants often argue that Pennsylvania law restricts recovery in strict liability to intended users of a product. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has yet to address the issue of bystander recovery in strict liability post-Tincher, however, and Pennsylvania state and federal courts have reached different conclusions on whether such claims are viable and, if so, under what circumstances.

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