More than three years after the case changed the definition of products liability in Pennsylvania, Tincher v. Omega Flex has been sent back for a new trial.
On Friday, a unanimous three-judge panel of the state Superior Court determined that product manufacturer Omega Flex was entitled to a new trial on claims that its gas transportation system was defective. The decision, which reversed the trial court’s ruling, highlighted the importance of jury instructions that outline the revamped definition of “defect.”
According to the 30-page opinion written by Superior Court Judge Anne Lazarus, the trial court had determined there was no need for a new trial because the jury heard evidence that could have satisfied the new requirements for bringing products liability that Supreme Court established in 2014. However, Lazarus determined that a new trial was necessary because the jury instructions gave an outdated definition of “defect” rooted in a case the justices overturned in 2014.
“The trial court had no authority to deny a new trial on the basis of its own speculation about what the jury would do under the Supreme Court’s new formulation of the law,” Lazarus said. “The trial court’s declaration that the new legal reformulation resulting from the Supreme Court’s thorough and extensive decision … can cause no change to the verdict undervalues the importance of the Supreme Court’s decision.”
In 2014, Tincher resulted in a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court that recalibrated products liability law in Pennsylvania. The ruling did away with the strict separation of negligence and strict liability principals. The decision further held that plaintiffs in products liability cases can pursue claims on either a risk utility or consumer expectation test, and overruled a foundational opinion from the 1970s that had provided guidance on what questions juries should be allowed to consider.
In the wake of the decision, trial courts and litigators have fought over how far-reaching the 2014 pronouncement should go, especially when it comes to jury instructions and whether juries should be allowed to consider industry safety standards.
As part of its 2014 ruling, the Supreme Court also sent Tincher back to the trial court to determine whether the defendants were entitled to a new trial in the case, given the 2014 recalibration of the law.
According to Lazarus, the trial court determined that the jury instructions given in the case had not been prejudicial to the defendant, and would not have affected their verdict. The jury instruction, however, had been given in accordance with Azzarello v. Black Brothers—the 1978 decision that the Supreme Court expressly overruled.
Under Azzarello, the jury was instructed that a product is defective if it “lacks any element needed to make it safe for it intended use,” Lazarus noted, but that definition was clearly tossed by the Supreme Court with its 2014 decision. Lazarus also noted that the jury asked twice for the charging definition of “defect” and said the issue was “critical” to the case.
“If an incorrect definition of ‘defect’ under Azzarello calls for a new trial, an incorrect definition of ‘defect’ under Tincher should call for the same result. We conclude that fundamental error analysis is particularly applicable here because the trial court gave a charge under law that the Supreme Court has explicitly overruled in this very case,” Lazarus said. “Such a charge would appear to be a paradigm example of fundamental error.
Neither Mark Utke of Cozen O’Connor, who represented the plaintiffs, nor William Conroy of Campbell Campbell Edwards & Conroy, who is representing Omega Flex, returned a call seeking comment.