In its recent decision in Sullivan v. Werner, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court readdressed its decade-old ruling in Tincher v. Omega Flex, Inc. and held that, in a strict liability design defect case, the focus needs to remain on the product itself and not the “reasonableness” of the conduct of its manufacturer in making design choices – including compliance with industry or governmental standards – to ensure the safety of consumers and users of its products.
In the underlying case, which involved injuries sustained by a plaintiff when a scaffold on which he was working collapsed unexpectedly, the plaintiff was permitted at trial to introduce evidence of alternative scaffold designs and products, while attempts by the defense to introduce evidence of scaffolds utilizing the same or a similar design as the scaffold at issue were barred. The 2019 two-week trial ended in a $2.5 million jury verdict in favor of the plaintiff, with the jury finding defendant Werner’s SRS 72 scaffold defective in design and having defective warnings.
The Supreme Court granted an appeal to consider whether evidence of a product’s compliance with industry and governmental safety standards is admissible in products liability cases following Tincher v. Omega Flex, Inc., 104 A.3d 328 (Pa. 2014). In holding that compliance evidence remains inadmissible, the Court in Sullivan acknowledges the possibility that an entire industry may be defective and, therefore, evidence that the product in question complied with industry standards is of no importance. Defendant manufacturers cannot “hide” behind standards which are minimal and highly influenced by the industry. The Court’s decision may result in an influx of strict liability products cases in Pennsylvania in which trial courts will need to determine on a case-by-case basis whether and how to permit defendants an opportunity to offer evidence of compatible product designs in the marketplace without running afoul of the ban on the introduction of industry and governmental standards.