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Case Bulletin – Eastern District Grants Summary Judgment for Products Liability Defendant Based on Open and Obvious Dangers Standard

On Tuesday, March 1, 2016 the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted summary judgment for SCM Group North America, providing further explanation of the new products liability standard from Tincher v. Omega Flex, Inc., 104 A.3d 328 (Pa. 2014). In the case of Hatcher v. SCM Group North America, Inc., No. 15-1630, 2016 WL 807731 (E.D. Pa. March 1, 2016), the Plaintiff was a machinist who injured three fingers while working with an industrial woodworking sawing machine known as the T130 Shaper. The T130 Shaper had two safety devices: (1) two wooden fence guards and (2) a spring steel safety guard. Additionally, the front of the machine contained a warning label that stated, in capital letters, “DON’T RUN THE MACHINE WITHOUT NECESSARY SAFETY GUARDS.” The Plaintiff had been hired three months prior to this accident, and he did not receive any formal training for the T130 Shaper. Instead, he was trained on other machines, but volunteered to help a co-worker on this particular day. Neither of these workers read the operating manual for the T130 Shaper. The Plaintiff also admitted that he never read the capital letters on the machine itself. Finally, at the time of the incident, the blade guard was not in use.

 

The first important holding from this opinion was that the Plaintiff failed to distinguish between the defective design claim and the failure-to-warn claim, offering no evidence to support an independent defective design claim. Rather, the court explained that where the only evidence in support of a defective design claim was that “it did not include a clear and obvious warning” summary judgment for the Defendant was proper.

 

Second, the court found that the Plaintiff’s failure-to-warn claim was legally insufficient because the danger of the spinning blades on the machine was open and obvious, and the existing warnings were adequate to alert any operator of unobvious dangers. The court began by acknowledging the Tincher opinion, and even mentioned that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allocator in Amato v. Bell & Gossett, Clark-Reliance, Corp., 2016 WL 381069 (Pa. Feb. 1, 2016) to potentially resolve whether Tincher applies to failure-to-warn cases. However, the Eastern District ruled that until the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issues a ruling that expressly extends Tincher to failure-to-warn claims, it will continue to apply the previous standard of open and obvious dangers pursuant to Mackowick v. Westinghouse Elec. Corp., 575 A.2d 100, 102 (Pa. 1990).  In applying Mackowick, the court granted summary judgment for the Defendant, noting that the warning on the machine was sufficient to alert the operator that the machine was accompanied by safety guards. Additionally, the Plaintiff admitted that he never read the existing warnings on the machine or the manual.