Pennsylvania Supreme Court Upends Product Liability Law in the Commonwealth

Posted on November 21st, 2014 by sutteroconnell

Today is a better day for manufacturers and suppliers who may find themselves subject to law suits in Pennsylvania. Yesterday in Tincher v. Omega Flex, Inc. the PA Supreme Court unanimously reversed one of the most anti-business cases in American jurisprudence history. In 1978, the then very liberal Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued its decision in  the case of Azzarello v. Black Brothers, Inc. and began a quarter century of unexplainable dogma that prejudiced corporate and business defendants. Chief among the problems was the pro-plaintiff jury instruction wherein: “The supplier of a product is the guarantor of its safety.  The product must, therefore, be provided with every element necessary to make it safe for its intended use, and without any condition that makes it unsafe for its intended use”.   A close second was a procedure wherein the risk utility analysis was taken away from the jury and put into the hands of the trial judge. Both of these edicts are now history.

The Tincher decision is 137 pages long, contains a very detailed history of PA product liability law and offers some very frank criticism of the Azzarello opinion. The Court declined to adopt the Third Restatement formulation, but accepted the challenge of taking on the troubling common law precedent and resetting the law on a more logical and just path.  While Pennsylvania remains a Second Restatement jurisdiction, a cause of action in strict products liability now requires proof, in the alternative, either of the ordinary consumer’s expectations or of the risk-utility of the product.  The Supreme Court ultimately declined to consider whether a risk-utility approach would shift the burden of proof from the plaintiff to the defendant until a more appropriate case presents itself, specifically raising that question.

This new case goes a long way toward leveling the playing field for manufacturers and giving product liability defendants a fighting chance to defend their products.

The full text of the opinion can be found here.