Michael and Melissa Sullivan v. Werner Company, et al., No. 18 EAP 2022, 2023 WL 8859656 (Pa. 2023)

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Rules that Evidence of Product’s Compliance with Governmental Regulations or Industry Standards Is Inadmissible in Design Defect Cases to Show a Product Is Not Defective Under the Risk-Utility Theory.

The plaintiff was injured at a jobsite when the platform of a six-foot tall mobile scaffold collapsed, causing him to fall through the scaffold to the ground. The plaintiff, along with his wife, brought suit, alleging the mobile scaffold system was defectively designed because it was possible for a user to inadvertently rotate the deck pins off the platform during normal use. 

The trial court ruled, prior to trial, that evidence of the product’s compliance with OSHA and ANSI standards was inadmissible in a design defect case to show a product is not defective under the risk-utility theory. During deliberations, the jury asked the court, “[d]oes OSHA inspect every product that is put on the market, especially those with patent?”, but the court responded that it could not answer the question and instructed the jury not to consider OSHA in any way during its deliberations. The jury was also permitted to physically inspect an exemplar scaffold, but defense counsel was required to cover the ANSI and OSHA certification stickers with exhibit stickers so the jury would not be permitted to see that the product was in compliance. 

On appeal, the Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s ruling that compliance with industry and governmental standards is inadmissible. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has now weighed in, agreeing with the trial and Superior Courts that evidence of a product’s compliance with governmental or industry standards is inadmissible because it is irrelevant and would confuse the jury. 

This case highlights that Pennsylvania courts are unwilling to move towards the Third Restatement, as have virtually all of Pennsylvania’s sister states. Chief Justice Todd’s dissent succinctly highlighted the problems with the decision, stating that the majority opinion “perpetuates a vestige of the highly criticized and recently overruled decision in Azzarello v. Black Brothers Co., Inc.; eschews the recent teachings of this Court in Tincher v. Omega Flex, Inc.; rejects the sound approach taken by virtually all of our sister states; accepts the patent unfairness of nonetheless allowing such evidence to be admissible in a plaintiff’s case to show a product is defective; and deprives juries of potentially valuable and relevant information, all seemingly out of a misplaced fear that the jury will be misled or confused.” 


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