Monday, January 31, 2011

Products liability- affirmative defense is Defendants burden

A recent products liability case out of Butler County, Pennsylvania has produced some interesting insight from the Superior Court. In Reott v. Asia Trend Pa. Super. 112 WDA 2010Reott purchased two hunting tree stands. You can read the full opinion here.  Asia Trend manufactured and distributed the tree stand. Reott took the tree stand out on a hunting expedition. He set it up in a tree approximately 25 feet off the ground. After testing the stand as he had many times in the past with a separate identical stand, Reott entered the stand only for it to break. He fell and injured his back. Upon inspection it was discovered that one of the fastening belts on the stand was held together with glue instead of stitching.

To state a products liability cause of action in Pennsylvania a plaintiff must prove two things: “(1) that the product was defective; and (2) that the defect was a substantial factor in causing the injury.” Hadar v. AVCO Corp. 886 A.2d 225, 228 (Pa. Super. 2005). A product is defective “when it is not safe for its intended use, i.e., the product left the supplier’s control lacking any element necessary to make it safe for its intended use.” Azzarello v. Black Bros. Co., Inc., 480 Pa. 547, 559 (1978). The Superior Court in this case noted that “the key inquiry in all products liability cases is whether or not there is a defect- it is the product, and not the defendant’s conduct, that is on trial.” Citing Hutchinson v. Penske Truck Leasing Co., 876 A.2d 978 (Pa. Super. 2005).

One of several issues raised on appeal with the Superior Court in this case was the extent to which evidence of contributory negligence is admissible. At the close of Reott’s case, the defense only offered into evidence the instruction manual for the tree stand and a video about how to use the tree stand. In the video there were repeated references to a safety harness that Reott had not used. Because of this when Reott’s counsel moved for a directed verdict on both liability and causation the trial court only granted the verdcit as to liability and left the issue of causation to the jury. Sadly, the jury came back with a defense verdict.

In its analysis, the Pa. Superior Court noted that evidence of a plaintiff’s contributory negligence is generally inadmissible. But in certain, limited, circumstances, evidence of a plaintiff’s conduct may be admissible, specifically where the defendant alleges that the plaintiff’s voluntary assumption of risk, product misuse, or highly reckless conduct is relevant to the issue of causation. Gaudio v. Ford Motor Co., 976 A.2d 524 (Pa. Super. 2009). The Court discussed the factors necessary to establish each of these conditions.

The trial had concluded that because the Pa. Superior Court had previously stated that highly reckless conduct is admissible so far as it “relates to the element of causation,” it follows that evidence of highly reckless conduct is not an affirmative defense, but rather is evidence that refutes the element of causation. The Superior Court disagreed with this rationale. The Superior Court noted that it has long been the law in Pennsylvania that the defendant has the burden of proving assumption of the risk, product misuse and reckless behavior.

After analyzing the facts of the case the Superior Court determined that the evidence introduced at trial was insufficient as a matter of law to support the defense of highly reckless conduct. As such, the Superior Court determined that the trial court erred as a matter of law in denying Reott’s motion for a directed verdict on the issue of causation.

The key take away from this portion of the appeal is that voluntary assumption of risk, product misuse, or highly reckless conduct are affirmative defenses that the defendant has the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence. Plaintiffs need to be aware of this as this ruling sets up good opportunities to obtain directed verdicts on critical elements of a claim that are often the stumbling blocks for juries finding in your favor. Share this post :
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1 comment:

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