Case Bulletin – The Pennsylvania Supreme Court Accepts Appeal to Determine Whether the Holding in Tincher v. Omega Flex, Inc. Applies to Failure-to-Warn claims.
On February 1, 2016, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted the Petition for Allowance of Appeal in Vinciguerra v. Bayer, 2016 WL 380955 and Amato v. Bell & Gossett, Clark-Reliance Corp, 2016 WL 381069, two separate cases that were jointly decided by the Superior Court in Amato v. Bell & Gossett, 116 A.3d 607 (Pa. Super. 2015). The sole issue taken on appeal by the Supreme Court was to determine whether “under the Court’s recent decision in Tincher v. Omega-Flex, Inc., 104 A.3d 328 (Pa. 2014), a defendant in a strict-liability claim based on a failure-to-warn theory has the right to have a jury determine whether its product was “reasonably dangerous?”
On Appeal, the Vinciguerra and Amato cases raised substantially similar issues on appeal, causing the Superior Court to sua sponte consolidate the appeals for disposition. 116 A.3d 607. Both cases concern claims made by former industrial workmen who contracted asbestos related mesothelioma as a result of having worked with products containing asbestos and, in particular, “Cranite” a product manufactured by appellant Crane Co. Id. Crane Co. raised several unique issues for appeal in each case as well as the identical issue of “whether the trial courts’ failure-to-warn jury instruction was inappropriate in light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Tincher v. Omega Flex?”
Crane Co. argued on appeal that the Supreme Court, in Tincher had recently changed the landscape of strict product liability by shifting the determination of whether or not a product was unreasonably dangerous from the judge as a matter of law to the fact finder as a question of fact. Crane argues that the Court’s holding from Tincher, regarding a defective design, should be applied to these two cases, which concern claims of failure to warn. The Appellees argued against Crane’s position on the grounds that the Tincher Court emphasized the limited reach of its decision.
The Superior Court acknowledge Tincher’ s emphasis on “factual nuance”, but ultimately concluded that it provided a road map to “navigate the broader world of post-Azzarello strict liability law (the pre-Tincher, seminal Supreme Court case concerning strict liability law).” Id. The Superior Court held that Tincher “returned to the finder of fact the question of whether a product is unreasonably dangerous, as that determination is part and parcel of whether the product is, in fact, defective.” Id.
In this matter, the Court found that Tincher applied to the jury’s determination of whether or not failure-to-warn instructions were reasonable. However, the Superior Court ultimately determined that Crane’s requested jury instruction, incorporating considerations of reasonableness, was not justified by the theory of the case and evidence presented by Crane at trial. Specifically, Crane defended on the grounds that its Cranite product was not dangerous at all, not that it was not “unreasonably dangerous.” Accordingly, the Court determined that Crane was not prejudiced by a jury instruction that did not account for reasonableness as Crane had essentially argued that it had no duty to warn as there was no risk.
Ultimately, the Superior Court upheld the judgments rendered by the trial courts in Vinciguerra and Amato. Subsequently, Crane Co. has appealed, and the Supreme Court has recently accepted the appeal solely to hear arguments on the applicability of Tincher to failure-to-warn products liability cases and jury instructions. The Supreme Court’s eventual decision on this issue will shed additional light on the state Pennsylvania products liability law post Tincher.