Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Evidentiary Issues in Products Liability- Reott Revisited

Continuing on with my discussion of the Pennsylvania Superior Court’s holding in a recent products liability case that I previously discussed here- Asia Trend had its own post-trial gripe.

Before trial, counsel for the Reotts wisely filed a motion in limine (suppress evidence) to exclude any evidence of Reott’s failure to use the safety strap that came with the stand, to first practice with the tree stand at ground level, or to inspect the tree stand before using it. The trial court granted the motions in limine, ruling that such evidence was inadmissible because Asia Trend did not intend to introduce the evidence to dispute the cause of the tree stand’s failure.

On appeal, Asia Trend, not surprisingly, argued that the trial court erred by incorrectly focusing on the cause of the tree stand’s failure as opposed to the cause of Reott’s injury. This argument is dubious since it seems unlikely anything other than a 25-foot fall caused Reott’s injuries i.e. in my opinion, the stand’s failure and the cause of injury, the fall, are practically the same thing. To counter my thought, counsel for Asia Trend argued that had Reott taken the “appropriate” steps beforehand he would have been “injured less, if at all.”

The Superior Court was not persuaded by this logic pointing out that Asia Trend had ignored a critical point: in order for an action in products liability to lie it is required only that the product defect be a substantial factor in the injury, not that it be the sole cause. Charlton v. Toyota Indus. Equip., 714 A.2d 1043, 1046 (Pa. Super. 1998). Thus, even if Reott’s own actions were a substantial factor in his injury it does not change the fact that the collapse of the tree stand was also a substantial factor. The Superior Court noted that the only way this evidence may have been admissible was if it were offered to show it was the sole or superseding cause of the injury. But, because it was being offered instead to establish comparative fault, the Superior Court held that such evidence had no place in a products liability action.

I can’t help but think that Asia Trend may have missed the boat in failing to properly characterize the purpose of the evidence. It looks as though this critical evidence would have gotten in had it been to show that Reott’s actions were the sole or superseding cause of the injury. And I don’t think this would have been a stretch of an argument. Had Reott taken the steps of pre-testing the stand on the ground and/or used the safety harness he likely would not have been involved in the stand collapse. This presents a strong argument that his failures were a superseding cause of the injury. The key for the defendant is to get that evidence in any way possible. As soon as the jury hears the information regardless of what it is being offered to prove, the damage is done. Share this post :
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