In Pennsylvania strict products liability cases, defendants are not permitted to introduce evidence of a plaintiff’s negligence. To prove a strict-liability cause of action, the plaintiff must prove: (a) the product was defective, (b) that it was defective when it left the defendant’s hands, and (c) that the defect caused harm—a plaintiff’s negligence is not relevant to a product defect. However, a plaintiff’s conduct may be offered by the defense to establish that an accident was solely the result of the user’s conduct, and not related to the product defect. This evidence proves causation and not negligence.
The thin line between presenting evidence of plaintiff’s conduct to prove negligence or to rebut the element of causation was at the center of Anderson v. Pirelli Tire, LLC. In Anderson, the plaintiff’s wife died in a motorcycle accident when the tire blew out. Pirelli Tire, LLC manufactured the motorcycle’s tire and plaintiff asserted a strict liability claim arguing that the tire had a manufacturing defect. Crucially, plaintiff argued that he noticed a “blemish” on the tire on the day of the accident; plaintiff’s theory was that a foreign object got inside the tire during the manufacturing process, and that the tire left Pirelli’s plant with the defect. Pirelli argued that plaintiff was at fault because the tire was under-inflated and overloaded resulting in over-deflection, which caused the accident.
The conduct at issue were the steps taken by the plaintiff to ensure their safety on the motorcycle, the air pressure of the tire, and the weight carried on the motorcycle at the time of the trip. The plaintiff argued this was inadmissible because it was evidence of the plaintiff’s negligence, but the court permitted the evidence on the theory that it went to impeach the plaintiff’s testimony and that it went to causation. First, in respect to impeachment, the plaintiff testified that he took safety courses and that he reviewed a checklist before riding the motorcycle. Pirelli argued that given that training, the plaintiff would have taken the tire to the shop if he in fact noticed a “blemish.” Second, in respect of causation, Pirelli argued that plaintiff’s failure to inflate the tire caused the blow out, not a defective tire.
On appeal, the Superior Court upheld the trial court’s ruling since Pirelli offered the evidence properly—only to prove causation and not negligence. The court also relied on the trial court’s jury instructions, which highlighted that the jury could only consider the evidence for the purposes of impeachment and causation.
Thanks to Ellis Palividas for his contribution to this post and please write to Mike Bono with any questions.