Pennsylvania Superior Court Reverses Defense Verdict in Products Liability Case Based on Error in Evidence Allowed at Trial 

On June 1, 2009, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania reversed and remanded the defense verdict in the strict products liability case of Tara Guadioindividually and as the administratrix of the estate of Andrew Guadio v. Ford Motor Company, et al.  On June 21, 2001, Andrew Guadio was killed when his 1996 Ford F-150 skidded through a “T” intersection and struck a dirt embankment.  The investigation following the accident revealed that the decedent’s vehicle was traveling between 8 and 14 miles per hour at the time of impact.  The plaintiff alleged that the airbag system in the vehicle was defectively designed because it should not have deployed in an accident occurring at such a slow speed, or in the alternative, the airbag system was inherently dangerous because the airbag deployment was delayed in low speed crashes.  At trial, the jury found that there was no defect in Ford’s design of the 1996 F-150 airbag system.  On appeal, the plaintiff challenged the court’s decisions to admit several different types of evidence at trial.
Writing for the three person panel, Judge Donahue first established that the crashworthiness doctrine was still viable in Pennsylvania strict liability cases.  Furthermore, the court held that the doctrine required an analysis of theforeseeability of an intended use of the product.  In coming to this conclusion, the court held that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision in General Services I did not abolish the crashworthiness doctrine; it simply limited the doctrine’s application.  The court then turned to the merits of the appeal. 
The first evidentiary issue addressed by the court was whether 75Pa.C.S.A. §4581(e) should be read strictly to prohibit any and all evidence of seatbelt non-usage from trial or if it should be interpreted to only preclude evidence of seatbelt non-usage as it pertained to evidence of contributory negligence.  The court split on this issue, but the two person majority determined that the statute must be read strictly, and therefore, the trial court was in error for allowing the defense to present testimony and evidence that the decedent was not wearing a seatbelt at the time of the accident.  Judge Fitzgerald, a former justice specially assigned to the Superior Court, filed an opinion dissenting on this single issue and concurring in all other matters. Fitzgerald argued that the weight of authority indicates that evidence of seatbelt usage or non-usage should be allowed in strict products liability cases to prove or disprove causation or a product defect.
The court next turned to the issue of whether evidence of the decedent’s pre-impact conduct and position should be admissible.  The court determined that evidence regarding the decedent’s position immediately prior to impact was relevant to at least one of the plaintiff’s theories of liability, but testimony as to why the driver may have been in the position and testimony as to the driver’s conduct prior to impact was neither relevant nor admissible.
The court then addressed whether evidence of Ford’s compliance with industry standards and government safety regulations was admissible and whether statistical evidence showing an absence of similar accidents should be allowed.  The court held that evidence of compliance with industry standards or government safety regulations can only be offered by the defendant to refute or rebut allegations of non-compliance made by the plaintiff.  Furthermore, the rebutting evidence allowable must be specific to the allegation being made; general evidence of compliance is not admissible.  However, Ford’s evidence showing an absence of similar accidents was deemed admissible because it was relevant to the issue of causation and because the evidence laid a proper foundation – it dealt with the same year, make, model, and airbag system as the vehicle involved in the case.
Finally the court articulated that the plaintiff must prove not that the design was not only defective, but also that an alternative, safer design would have lessened or eliminated the plaintiff’s injury.  Consequently, the court held that evidence and testimony regarding a risk-benefit analysis was admissible. Ultimately, the Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed and remanded the defense verdict in this case because of errors made by the trial court in admitting evidence at trial.
By: Marc Felezzola