Motion for Summary Judgment: An Arrow Back in the Defense’s Quiver?
| November 14, 2017

Is the motion for summary judgment arrow back in the defense bar’s quiver for defect and failure to warn claims?  The Pennsylvania products liability law landscape has been in constant flux since the seminal Tincher v. Omega Flex, Inc., 628 Pa. 296 (Pa. 2014) decision.  One of the starkest changes was the supposed death of the motion for summary judgment as an exit strategy.  The Tincher decision appeared to lay down a marker that issues of defects and warnings are questions for the jury, rather than the judge.  However, a federal court, applying Pennsylvania law, recently cited a pre-Tincher standard in granting summary judgment for the defense.

In Roundabush v. Rondo, Inc. and Rondo Burgdorf Ag., 3:15-cv-59-KRG, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania granted Defendants’ motion for summary judgment, dismissing the matter.  Plaintiff, Shelly Roudabush, suffered two severed fingers while she was cleaning a machine which is used to deposit filing into cookies.  Defendant, Rondo Burgdorf AG, manufactured the machine, and Defendant, Rondo, Inc. sold the machine to Plaintiff’s employer.  When Plaintiff stuck her hand into the machine to clean it, one of her coworkers turned it on, causing a series of pistons to activate and sever Plaintiff’s fingers.  Plaintiff filed a strict products liability action against the Defendants, alleging both design defect and failure to warn claims.

The Court granted Defendants’ motion based on the design defect claim.  In doing so, the Court held that, at the machine originally left Defendants’ control, there was a safety guard over the area where Plaintiff stuck her hand, as well as a “lock-out” capability and a limit switch, which prevent the machine from running unless the guard was in place.  Resultantly, the Court noted, “no reasonable fact-finder could conclude that the machine was defectively designed,” and, in order to prevail, Plaintiff would have to have shown that Defendants could have “reasonably expected” the alterations which removed/disabled these safety features.  The Court also granted Defendants’ motion for summary judgment on Plaintiff’s failure to warn claim, holding that the machine bore conspicuous, targeted, and detailed warnings at the time of Plaintiff’s injury.  Specifically, the Court cites an image of an injured hand alongside a sign on the machine which read “DANGER: DO NOT OPERATE THIS MACHINE WITHOUT GUARDS,” both of which were placed directly next to the incident location.

Of particular note given the current state of products liability law in Pennsylvania, in granting Defendants’ motion for summary judgment, the Court relied almost exclusively on Davis v. Berwind Corp., 547 Pa. 260, 268 (Pa. 1997), a case which predates the supposedly game-changing Tincher.  The Court made only a passing mention of Tincher, and for the sole purpose of identifying Section 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts as the statutory basis for Pennsylvania products liability law.  Instead, the Court cited Davis, decided almost two decades prior to Tincher, in support of its decision to grant Defendants’ motion.  In Davis, the removal of safety devices constituted a substantial change to the product, and one which was deemed unforeseeable as a matter of law.  Additionally, in Davis, the conspicuous and clear nature of the warnings mandated that summary judgement was appropriate.

Prior to the Tincher decision, the trial judge was the gatekeeper on the type of issues present in the Roundabush case; namely, determinations of the existence of a prima facie case of defect and failure to warn claims as a matter of law.  However, after Tincher, the general consensus has been that the use of motions for summary judgment was much harder at a minimum, and borderline impossible at a maximum.  The Roundabush Court’s ruling is vitally important, as it effectively places the motion for summary judgment arrow back in defense counsel’s quiver.  Product manufacturers and distributors must be cognizant of the Roudabush decision, as well as others in the new, post-Tincher Pennsylvania legal landscape, as their legal counsel can once again utilize motions for summary judgement as a viable exit strategy.

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