Michael Sullivan was seriously 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 platform of the scaffold was secured to the frame by two spring-loaded deck pins that the user rotated to cover the platform after it was seated in the scaffold. Sullivan brought a strict liability action against Werner and Lowe’s, alleging that 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. Before trial, Sullivan filed a Motion in Limine to preclude Defendants from admitting into evidence any industry or government standards. The motion noted that Defendants’ expert had submitted a report suggesting the scaffold met Federal OSHA Regulations and ANSI Standards.
In describing the evolution on Pennsylvania Products Liability Law, the Supreme Court explained as follows:
“Under the risk-utility standard, a product is in a defective condition if a reasonable person would conclude that the probability and seriousness of harm caused by the product outweigh the burden or costs of taking precautions. In its discussion of the risk-utility standard, the Tincher Court enumerated the risk-utility factors identified by Dean Wade, but noted the difficulty using those factors in a typical design defect case. Instead, the Tincher Court adopted the composite test as set forth by the California Supreme Court, which contained a nonexclusive list of risk-utility factors: the gravity of the danger posed by the challenged design; the likelihood that such danger would occur; the mechanical feasibility of a safer alternative design; the financial cost of an improved design, and the adverse consequences to the product and to the consumer that would result from an alternative design.
“The trial court in this case instructed the jury to consider the following factors, which are verbatim six of the Wade factors: ‘The usefulness and desirability of the product, its utility to the user and to the public as a whole, the safety aspects of the product, the likelihood that it will cause injury, and the probable seriousness of the injury, the availability of a substitute product which would meet the same need and not be as unsafe, the manufacturer’s ability to eliminate the unsafe character of the product without impairing its usefulness or making it too expensive to maintain its utility, the user’s ability to avoid danger by the exercise of care in the use of the product, the user’s anticipated awareness of the dangers inherent in the product and their availability, because of the general public knowledge of the obvious condition of the product or the existence of suitable warnings or instructions.’
“Regardless of the formulation of the risk-utility test, the focus is clearly on the characteristics of the product.”
Hence, the Supreme Court re-affirms Lewis and holds that “evidence of a 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. To be clear, compliance evidence is simply evidence of the ultimate conclusion that a product complies with government regulations or industry standards, i.e., that a government agency or industry organization would deem the product not defective. It is not evidence of the underlying attributes of the product that make it compliant with regulations or standards, which is presumably admissible subject to the ordinary Rules of Evidence. We agree with the Lewis Court’s assessment that the focus of a design defect case must be limited to the characteristics of the product, and not the conduct of the manufacturer or seller. Compliance evidence does not prove any characteristic of the product; rather, it diverts attention from the product’s attributes to both the manufacturer’s conduct and whether a standards-issuing organization would consider the product to be free from defects. Neither of these considerations are pertinent to a risk-utility analysis.”
Sullivan v. Werner Company, No.18-2022, 2023 WL 8859656 (Pa. Dec. 22, 2023).