gavel.gif (3462 bytes) Products Liability News

“Intended user” of lighter in products case is irrelevant

Copies of the 27-page opinion in Phillips v. Cricket Lighters are available by contacting Kristy Hackman, Communications Associate, ([email protected]).

In a products liability case, the Pennsylvania Superior Court has reversed a trial court’s decision that granted summary judgment to the appellees because a two-year-old who started a tragic fire while playing with a disposable lighter that did not have child-resistant features was not the “intended user” of that lighter. In Phillips v. Cricket Lighters, the Superior Court on April 10 ruled that the trial court’s analysis of who was the “intended user” of the lighter was irrelevant in the case. In a 27-page opinion, Senior Judge John P. Hester wrote:

We disagree with this [trial court’s] analysis and believe that it harkens back to privity principles that were expressly abrogated by the adoption of products liability law. Initially, as noted, there is nothing in the elements of a products liability cause of action that requires a plaintiff to be an “intended user” of a product. Instead, the language of Restatement (Second) of Torts �402A allows recovery to any ultimate user or consumer of the defective product.

The Superior Court found that the trial court improperly granted summary judgment and also rejected the appellees’ contention that the case was preempted by federal consumer protection law.

The decision is a significant victory for Pennsylvania consumers, according to Paul R. Lauricella of the Philadelphia firm of Beasley Casey & Erbstein who filed an amicus curiae brief on behalf of PaTLA. Lauricella said that this is the first time the Court has addressed the issue of whether a manufacturer could circumscribe its liability simply by defining the class of intended users.

According to the Court’s opinion, the fire that was ignited by the lighter killed Robyn Williams, a single mother, and two of her three children, Jerome and Alphonso, but spared Neil Alphonso, who is the sole surviving child and was a witness to the tragedy. On the night of Nov. 30, 1993, Neil awoke in his apartment bedroom after hearing noises in the kitchen. He saw his two-year-old brother, Jerome, with a lighter in his hand. Jerome had pulled a chair next to the refrigerator and had pulled down his mother’s purse from the top of the refrigerator. According to the opinion, Neil tried unsuccessfully to awaken his sleeping mother. Neil then returned to his bedroom, where Jerome, still with the lighter, also was located. Jerome tried to light the lighter twice. His second effort was successful and the flame ignited bed linens and the room began to fill with smoke and fire. Neil unsuccessfully attempted to awaken his mother a second time. Neil then went to a window and started to scream. After suffering from smoke inhalation, he was rescued by a neighbor. The other three family members died in the fire.

According to the Court, the Cricket disposable butane lighter was retrieved from the apartment following the fire.

Gwendolyn Philips, as administratrix of the estates of the decedents and as Neil’s guardian, filed suit against the manufacturers and distributors of Cricket butane lighters, as well as others who were not involved in the appeal.

The Superior Court first addressed Cricket’s claim that the state products liability claim was preempted by federal law. But the Court rejected the preemption claim, noting that the regulation did not apply to the lighter in question, which was manufactured in 1990. “Therefore, the standard does not even apply to the lighter involved in this case, which means that there is no federal standard attempting to regulate the same subject matter as that of the appellant’s claim,” Hester wrote.

Next, the Court addressed the plaintiff’s claim that the lighter was designed defectively because it was unreasonably dangerous for the manufacturer not to place child-proof or child-resistant features on it. The Court said it disagreed with the trial court’s opinion that the plaintiff could not bring the claim, since the lighter was not being used by the “intended user” at the time of the fire. The Court said that there is nothing in the elements of a products liability cause of action that requires a plaintiff to be an “intended user” of a product. Instead, the Court pointed to the Restatement (Second) of Torts �402A.

The Court also said that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment without applying the risk utility test, as required under Pennsylvania law. “The danger posed by the design was of the gravest kind, and the likelihood that the danger would occur, due to the nature of the children and the product involved, was substantial and known to the appellees prior to manufacture of this product,” the Court said. “The adverse consequences to the product and to the consumer that would result from a safer design were minimal—a nominal increase in cost.”

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