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New Standard of Proof in Product Defect Lawsuits to Better Serve Victims

In October of last year, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Tincher v. Omega Flex, Inc. announced a new standard of proof to determine when a product is “defective” for purposes strict liability lawsuits. 104 A.3d 328, 400-01, 406-07 (Pa. 2014). The new standard of proof is called the Consumer Expectations Test. A plaintiff may prove that a product is defective by showing that the condition of the product, upon normal use, is dangerous beyond the ordinary consumer’s expectations. In other words, the plaintiff must show that the product is more dangerous than the ordinary user or consumer would normally expect such a product to be.

Prior to October of law year, when someone was injured by a defective product, like a malfunctioning airbag or faulty ignition switch, the plaintiff had to show at trial that a “reasonable person” would find the probability and seriousness of harm caused by the product to outweigh the burden or costs of taking precautions. Proving this standard often requires expensive expert opinions on considerations such as the usefulness of the product, the technological and economic availability of alternative designs, the manufacturer’s ability to eliminate hazards, the user’s ability to avoid the hazards, and the foreseeability of the harm, among other things. Not only does proving “defect” in this manner lead to a lengthy and expensive trial, but the numerous and confusing issues, and the complexity of the product itself, frequently result in jury verdicts for the defendant manufacturers.

Under the new Consumer Expectations Test, the plaintiff’s task is meant to be much simpler. Under this test, expert opinion on the above listed factors is entirely precluded at trial. Neither the plaintiff nor the defendant may put on argument, testimony, or evidence at trial concerning the “defect” of the product – because average and ordinary consumers are already in the position to judge whether a product should have been safer than it was.

One limitation on use of the Consumer Expectations Test is with regards to complex products. There are some products on the market that are so complex that the average and ordinary consumer does not know what to expect of it, in terms of safety expectations. For example, the average and ordinary consumer may not know at what precise speed and angle of a motor vehicle collision the airbags should go off. Thus, while the ordinary consumer would expect airbags in a frontal collision to deploy at 50 mph, the ordinary consumer may not be certain about what to expect when a vehicle collides at an angle going 23 mph. Whether this “complex product” limitation applied may be highly contested.

We at Atlee Hall believe that this new standard of proof, the Consumer Expectations Test, is a step in the right direction and will better help victims obtain the recovery they deserve.

If you have suffered an injury as a result of a consumer product or automobile and would like to learn more about your legal rights and options, please contact Atlee Hall, LLP today for a free consultation. We have offices in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, but help victims across the state.