Tincher v. Omega Flex, Inc.
On November 19, 2014, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania decided the case of Tincher v. Omega Flex, Inc., significantly changing the landscape of the state’s product liability law by adopting a new design defect test for strict product liability cases and unanimously overruling Azzarello v. Black Brothers Co., 391 A.2d 1020 (Pa. 1978). Campbell Campbell Edwards & Conroy, P.C. represented Omega Flex throughout the litigation and appeal.
During post trial motions, Omega Flex asserted that the trial court’s Azzarello strict liability design defect instruction was erroneous. Though Azzarrello was current defect test at the time of trial, Omega Flex argued that Azzarrello should be overruled and that the jury should have been instructed in accordance with the Third Restatement of Torts. The trial court disagreed, and the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed because Azzarello was the controlling law. On appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Omega Flex urged the Court to determine whether Azzarello decision should be overruled and replaced with the Third Restatement. The Court granted the appeal, limited to the following issue: “Whether this Court should replace the strict liability analysis of Section 402A of the Second Restatement with the analysis of the Third Restatement”.
The Court’s decision in Tincher represents a significant victory in the defense of future product liability cases in Pennsylvania. The newly announced decision in Tincher expressly overrules Azzarello and replaces Azzarello’s “any element” design defect test with two complementary design defect tests: a consumer expectations test and a risk-utility test, to be applied as appropriate depending on the facts of the particular case. While the Court did not adopt the Third Restatement, the Court indicated it was guided by its principles and recognized that there cannot be a per se rejection of negligence principles from strict liability, particularly in the typical design case where a safer alternative design is alleged. Along with its express adoption of a risk-utility test, Tincher also mandates that the jury, rather than solely the judge, will now conduct the risk-utility analysis and hear evidence relevant to that inquiry. Juries will no longer hear the Azzarello “guarantor of safety/every element” defect test, which was akin to instructing the jury that a manufacturer had absolute liability for injuries caused by a product. Instead, juries will be instructed on risk/utility or consumer expectations, depending on the circumstances of the case.
On remand to the trial court, the parties briefed and argued only the issue of whether Omega Flex was entitled to a new trial based on the Supreme Court’s decision. After the trial court denied Omega Flex a new trial, Omega Flex again appealed, arguing that the Supreme Court’s decision rendered the trial court’s original jury instructions—based on the now-overruled Azzarello decision—erroneous, and required a new trial. The Superior Court agreed, holding the Supreme Court had clearly stated the question of defect must be decided by the fact finder, not the trial court, where both sides have presented evidence on the issue. The Court’s adoption of a new design defect test necessarily changed how the question of defect is defined for the jury, and the Azzarello-based instructions at trial did not do that. Therefore, a new trial is required for the jury to receive proper instruction, in accordance with the Supreme Court’s holding, on the question of defect.