Historically, to defend against a design defect claim the fact that a product’s design complied with industry standards was not admissible. That type of evidence was viewed as focusing on the quality of the defendant’s conduct in making design choices, rather than the attributes of the product itself. Morevoer, up until recently, a defendant’s conduct was not something that could be explored at trial in product liability cases. However, in 2014, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a ruling that fundamentally altered the landscape of product liability law in Pennsylvania, Tincher v. Omega Flex, 104 A.3d 328 (2014). While Tincher resolved some questions (i.e. which Restatement would govern Pennsylvania product liability law and the tests associated therewith), it left many more unanswered including whether defendants could now introduce evidence that their products met industry standards, in order to prove their product was not defective. As a practicing products attorney, this is often one of the first questions my clients ask, “My product complies with ANSI, so how can they argue it was defective?”
Tincher opened the doors
In Tincher, the state Supreme Court did away with the strict separation of negligence and strict liability principles that were established in its 1978 ruling in Azzarello v. Black Brothers. For the defense bar this ruling was considered promising and one that would open the door to negligence-based defenses in strict liability trials to include the admission of industry standards. However, in the 2 plus years since Tincher was decided, there has been no clarity in this regard because we have been subject to inconsistent rulings and conflicting rational coming out of the Courts.
Renninger acknowledges negligence-based defenses
Renninger v. A&R Machine Shop was one of the first products liability cases to reach the appeals court. In Renninger, the Superior Court was asked to address the issue of whether a manufacturer could introduce evidence of industry standards under the risk utility test. The Court noted that Tincher seemed to allow for the possibility of negligence-based defenses, but declined to directly answer that question, noting the issue had not been sufficiently argued. The Court also commented that the Supreme Court’s overruling of Azzarello did not likewise overrule all subsequent product liability decisions that occurred in the 36 years after Azzarello, suggesting that some evidentiary rulings were likely to be upheld.
Honda acknowledges precedent
Then, on April 19, 2017, the Superior Court discussed whether evidence of a product seller’s compliance with industry standards was admissible in a strict products liability action. In Am. Honda Motor Co. v. Martinez, a defective-seatbelt case, the Court ruled for the injured party, and did not disturb pre-Tincher precedent regarding industry standards. The Court upheld the trial court’s exclusion of such evidence.
Today, post-Tincher, the issue of industry standards remains unclear and will likely remain so for the next several years until the Supreme Court definitively rules on the issue. Therefore, defense attorneys will have to continue to vehemently argue for their admission but we will most likely continue to see inconsistent rulings.