gavel.gif (3462 bytes) Products Liability

Gov’t contractor not immune from products suit


The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has reversed and remanded the Superior Court’s ruling in Connor v. Quality Coach, Inc., holding that a government contractor hired to modify the van of a disabled man is not immune from a lawsuit over an alleged negligent design. In a 7-0 decision, the Supreme Court said that government contractors should not be broadly exempted from tort liability even though they may raise the cost of their services.

“Thus, we hold that the prospect that the commonwealth may indirectly bear increased costs in procurement from the private sector does not justify a judicial rule of law broadly exempting government contractors from tort liability,” Justice Thomas Saylor wrote in the 23-page opinion.

The decision will significantly affect the application of the government contractor defense to non-military products, according to Arthur Bugay, who served as the brief writer for PaTLA’s Amicus Curiae Committee which participated on behalf of the plaintiff. “The decision is a well-needed beacon in a confusing area of the law,” Bugay said. “For anyone who receives state assistance for special needs, this is a victory.”

In Connor, the plaintiff, a quadriplegic, suffered serious and permanent injuries in a motor vehicle accident that resulted from his using the defendant’s product, a vehicle control mechanism specifically adapted for disabled drivers. The device was sold by the defendant, Quality Coach, pursuant to a public bid made to the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation.

The plaintiff was attempting to avoid an accident when a truck stopped abruptly in front of him. The plaintiff veered to the right to avoid the truck, but his car’s wheels struck the curb and the car veered left. This movement caused the plaintiff’s hand, strapped to the control, also to move left.
This movement caused an unintended acceleration of the vehicle, rendering plaintiff’s vehicle out of control and causing him to strike a parked car and a tree at a high rate of speed.

The Superior Court had affirmed the trial court’s entry of summary judgment finding that the government contractor defense applied even though this defense has previously only been applied in Pennsylvania to military products. Moreover, the Superior Court had modified existing law to apply a relaxed standard for this consumer product.

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