Proving an Injury was Due to a Product Defect

Pennsylvania product liability law and how to recover compensation

By S.M. Oliva

Thousands of Pennsylvania residents are injured every year by dangerous or defective consumer products. But injury alone does not mean the product manufacturer is legally responsible. Product liability is a complex area of personal injury law with many facets. In fact, there is more than one way to prove that a manufacturer is legally liable for a defective product.

Stewart Eisenberg, a personal injury attorney in Philadelphia, says he looks for a number of things when a potential client comes to him.

“We look for how the person was using the product, or how the product may have malfunctioned. We look at when the injury was,” he says. “It has to be a serious injury, because products liability cases are difficult and expensive to handle.

“If there's a misuse of the product—using it in a way that wasn't intended—that's a red flag,” he continues. “If the person is a professional and knows about the risk of a product, and gets injured, that's a red flag.”

Here is just a brief overview of how the law works in Pennsylvania:

Strict Liability

Strict liability refers to cases where the manufacturer is responsible for releasing a defective product onto the market regardless of negligence or intent. In other words, the victim does not have to prove the manufacturer did anything wrong. Rather, what matters is whether or not the product was in an unsafe condition when it left the manufacturer's control.

In a 2014 decision, Tincher v. Omega Flex, Inc., the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania revised the state's common law of strict liability. In that case, the justices said that to recover damages under strict liability, a victim needed to prove the product in question was in a “defective condition” by showing one of two things:

  • the danger created by the product was “unknowable and unacceptable to the average or ordinary consumer”; or
  • any “reasonable person” would find that “the probability and seriousness of harm caused by the product outweigh the burden or costs of taking precautions.”

In most cases, it is up to a jury to decide whether the plaintiff has proved a product is defective under these standards.

Negligence

In contrast to strict liability, a claim based on negligence goes to the manufacturer's conduct—or as is often the case, its misconduct. As with any other type of negligence claim under Pennsylvania law, a plaintiff must prove four things to recover damages:

  1. The manufacturer owed some legal duty to the plaintiff.
  2. The manufacturer breached that duty through some action or inaction.
  3. This breach was the “proximate cause” of some injury sustained by the plaintiff.
  4. The plaintiff suffered “actual damages” as a result of this injury.

Negligence claims may cover a wide range of problems, including cases where the manufacturer used a defective or inadequate design, as well as failing to include proper instructions or warning about the potential hazards of a product.

Breach of Warranty

Many consumer products come with a written warranty guaranteeing the item's fitness for a certain period of time. This is known as an “express warranty,” and the consumer may seek damages in event of a breach. However, even in the absence of an express warranty there are also “implied” warranties created by law. Just about every consumer good carries an “implied warranty of merchantability” under the Pennsylvania Uniform Commercial Code. This means that the product is in “sellable” condition and will do what it is expected to do without injuring the customer. Many products also carry an “implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose,” which applies when a customer relies on a manufacturer or seller's “skill or judgment to select or furnish suitable goods.”

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