Third Circuit Upholds Application of “Negligence-Type Concepts” in Products Liability Cases

Earlier this month, on July 12, the Third Circuit upheld a jury’s verdict in favor of a manufacturer of bicycle helmets, and in doing so, affirmed the lower court’s application of a relatively new interpretation of product liability law.  Covell v. Bell Sports, Inc., No. 10–3860, —F.3d—, 2011 WL 2690396 (3d Cir. July 12,  2011). The case was filed by the parents of a 36-year-old schoolteacher who sustained serious brain injuries when he was hit by a car while bicycling to work in 2007.  The parents, in their capacity as guardians, filed suit against the manufacturer of their son’s helmet, alleging that it was defectively designed and lacked adequate warnings.  At trial, over the plaintiffs’ “strident objections,” the court permitted the helmet manufacturer to introduce expert testimony regarding the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s “Safety Standard for Bicycle Helmets.” In turn, the plaintiffs responded with their own expert regarding the CPSC safety standard.  Both experts testified at trial that the CPSC standard forms the “starting point” for any bicycle helmet design, and both agreed that the helmet at issue satisfied CPSC standards in all respects.  At the conclusion of trial, the court instructed the jury that in determining whether the helmet was defective, it could consider evidence of standards in the industry, including the CPSC standards.

The Third Circuit recognized the “core conflict” that exists within provisions of the “strict liability regime” of the Restatement (Second) of Torts: that courts are to ignore evidence that the seller “exercised all possible care in the preparation and sale of his product,” yet imposes liability only for products that are “unreasonably dangerous.”  It is, of course, often impossible for a jury to determine whether a product is “unreasonably dangerous” without referencing evidence that the seller did or did not exercise “care in the preparation” of its product. Ultimately, the court held that federal courts applying Pennsylvania law are to use the Restatement (Third) of Torts to guide both their decisions regarding the admittance of evidence and in their usage of jury instructions.  In this regard, it allows for a more negligence-friendly products liability regime than previously recognized in Pennsylvania, where juries may properly consider industry standards and government regulations.  This is certainly a defense-friendly analysis and decision.  Short of doing away with strict liability laws in their entirety, incorporating more negligence-type concepts into the analysis of manufacturer liability is a positive approach.

Emily Pincow of the Product Liability Monitor blog has additional thoughts on the case here.

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