Pennsylvania’s Western District Holds Designs and Technical Drawings are Not Products, and Applies Restatement Third

In lieu of a ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Tincher v. Omega-Flex, Pennsylvania Federal Courts continue to struggle with a consistent application of the substantive law in products liability actions, which have now become an issue of interpretation for each individual Judge.

United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania Judge Cathy Bissoon applied the Restatement (Third) of Torts in a recent products liability decision. In Morris v. Phoenix Installation & Management Co, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 181018 (W.D. Pa. Dec. 30, 2013 Bissoon, J), the Court heard argument on three defendants’ motions for summary judgment in an action where Plaintiff’s ankle was crushed due to a conveyor belt accident.

Plaintiff was performing maintenance on an automobile-painting conveyor line, when the conveyor started moving and his ankle was crushed by a pallet. Before performing the maintenance, Plaintiff claimed that he pressed two “hold” buttons, one in the “paint kitchen” and one on the “Deco” control panel, which he believed would stop the conveyor line until the maintenance was complete. Plaintiff asserts that because the hold button did not hold that the conveyor was defectively designed. Plaintiff brought suit against defendant Phoenix who sold and installed the machinery, and defendant Uchihama, who provided consulting services for use of the conveyor line. Phoenix then joined Deco as an additional defendant, as Deco installed the control panel which the hold buttons were on. All three defendants filed motions for summary judgment.

The Court rejected Phoenix’s motion in its entirety, attacking its first argument by stating that the Restatement (Third) must be applied to the products action, making Phoenix’s defenses based on the Restatement (Second) moot. The Court also rejected Phoenix’s assumption of the risk argument, stating that it is unclear whether the doctrine applies under the Restatement Third. This will certainly make for an interesting issue in the future. Judge Bissoon additionally held that Phoenix was not entitled to summary judgment on its negligence or warranty claims.

Defendant Uchihama moved for summary judgment as well, arguing that it did not design the conveyor line, but allowed Phoenix and the Plaintiff’s employer copy the design used in its Japanese facilities. The Court held that designs and technical drawings are not “products” under the law of strict liability, and that Uchihama was not a “seller” for those purposes. On that basis, the Court granted summary judgment on the strict liability claim, but denied it on the negligence claim.

Additional Defendant Deco’s motion for summary judgment was denied in its entirety.

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