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Superior Ct: Focus is on defective product, not manufacturer�s conduct

Superior Court upholds $3.8 million verdict in favor of plaintiffs in products liability case

In a victory for plaintiffs, the Superior Court affirmed the judgment of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas on July 30, thus upholding a $3.8 million dollar verdict for plaintiffs in a strict products liability case.

PaTLA member Robert A. Krebs submitted a brief in the case of Colville v. Crown Equipment Corp., arguing that industry standards are not relevant or admissible in a strict products liability case. He said of the decision, "This was an important decision because the Superior Court has reaffirmed that under the Doctrine of Strict Liability, the focus is on the defective nature of the product and not on the manufacturer�s conduct in making its design choice. By not permitting evidence of a manufacturer�s compliance with industry standards to be introduced at trial, the court has made it clear that it is a matter for the courts to regulate an industry, not the other way around."

According to the Superior Court�s opinion, the plaintiff, David Colville, injured his foot in 1994 when it got caught between the base of a stand-up rider forklift he was driving and a delivery truck. Colville filed the strict products liability case against Crown Equipment Corp. and Omnilift, Inc. He argued that the design of the forklift was defective, as the machine had no door and a lack of warnings. Colville�s wife sued for loss of consortium.

Colville�s claim for lack of warnings was dismissed at trial due to insufficient evidence. The jury ultimately awarded Colville $3 million on his products liability claim, and awarded his wife $500,000 for her loss of consortium claim. The defendants then filed a motion for post-trial relief. The Colvilles then filed for delay damages, resulting in a final judgment of $3,843,253.29 for the plaintiffs.

In their appeal, the defendants raised three issues. The first was that the crashworthiness doctrine applied in the case because the design defect merely added to the severity of the accident rather than causing it. They argued that the trial court made a reversible error by not instructing the jury on crashworthiness because Colville presented the case under a crashworthiness theory from the beginning. The Superior Court found no merit in that argument. The opinion also stated that, "to preserve an issue for appellate review, a party must make a timely and specific objection at the appropriate stage of the proceedings before the trial court."

"The Superior Court will not review a claim if the complaining party failed to bring the issue to the trial court�s attention at a time when the trial court could have corrected the alleged error, thereby alleviating the need for appeal." The court stated that the appellants should have raised the issue after the close of the plaintiffs� testimony during trial. The opinion said that the appellants made no mention of crashworthiness in a motion for non-suit at the close of the appellees case. "Accordingly, appellants first issue is waived regardless of whether this was a crashworthiness case," said the court.

The second issue raised was that the trial court was wrong in excluding evidence of industry standards and compliance with government regulations. The court responded to this argument by saying, "Pennsylvania law makes clear that evidence of compliance with industry standards is inadmissible in a strict products liability action because it relates to the "reasonableness" of a manufacturer�s design decisions, and "reasonableness" rings of negligence law."

Krebs addressed this issue in his amicus brief. He said, "It was important that PaTLA participate in this appeal because the Product Liability Advisory Council, Inc. filed an extensive amicus curiae brief in which they called for an outright reversal of the cases that prohibit the introduction of evidence of a manufacturer�s compliance with industry standards in a strict products liability case. If they succeed, strict products liability would be dead in Pennsylvania and all of these cases will be decided under negligence concepts."

The appellants� third issue argued that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration�s (OSHA) regulations over design and operator training preempt the law in this case. Citing Coffey v. Miniwax, the court disagreed with this third issue as well. In Coffey, the trial court found that "OSHA regulations are not inconsistent with [appellees] theory and do not insulate [appellants] from liability."

The Superior Court agreed with the reasoning in Coffey, and found no merit in any of the appellants� issues for appeal. The court affirmed the order of the trial court in this matter, upholding the $3.8 million verdict.

"The fight is by no means over," said Krebs, "although I expect that the Superior Court will deny the petition of Crown Equipment for reargument en banc, Crown will still seek to appeal this case to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania."


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