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Case Bulletin – Superior Court Grants New Trial In Case in which Jury Charge Contained an Outdated Definition of “Defect”

On February 16, 2018, the Superior Court found that a Defendant manufacturer/supplier was entitled to a new trial following a denial of post-trial motions.  It held that because the Supreme Court’s decision in Tincher v. Omega Flex, Inc., 104 A.3d 328 (Pa. 2014) created a new definition of “defect” a jury charge containing an outdated definition of “defective” was a fundamental error that warranted a new trial.

The Tinchers lived in a central unit of a two-story triplex in Chester County, PA.  Early on a June morning, a fire erupted in their home, and investigators later determined that a nearby lightning strike caused a small puncture in a corrugated stainless steel tubing (CSST) that transported natural gas to a fireplace located in the residence below them. This fire caused significant damage to the Tinchers’ home. The Defendant Omega Flex manufactured and sold the CSST installed in the triplex. Following the fire, the Tinchers filed suit against Omega Flex asserting the following claims: strict liability, negligence, and breach of warranty.  The Plaintiffs based their strict liability claim on section 402A of the Second Restatement of Torts.  This section states:

One who sells any product in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user or consumer or to his property is subject to liability for physical harm thereby caused to the ultimate user or consumer or to his property if

(a) the seller is engaged in the business of selling such a product, and

(b) it is expected to and does reach the user or consumer without substantial change in the condition in which it is sold.

Restatement (Second) of Torts § 402A(1).

Prior to the trial of this matter, Omega Flex moved to have the court apply the Third Restatement of Torts and deliver jury instructions using Third Restatement’s definition of “defective.”  The Third Restatement defines “defective” as “when at the time of sale or distribution, it [the product] contains a manufacturing defect, is defective in design or is defective because of inadequate instructions or warnings.”  In response to the Defendant’s motion, the Tinchers argued that the court should deliver its jury instructions containing a definition of “defective product” using law from the Second Restatement of Torts and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision in Azzarello v. Black Bros Co., 391 A.2d 1020 (Pa. 1978), which then was the standard for defining “defective” at the time.

The trial court did not rule on Omega Flex’s motion prior to the start of trial.  During trial, both sides introduced evidence and presented the jury with expert testimony regarding whether the CSST was safe for its intended use.  Following the conclusion of both the Tinchers’ and Omega Flex’s cases in chief, the trial court instructed the jury on the Tinchers’ strict liability claim using the holding of the Supreme Court’s decision in Azzarello and the Second Restatement of Torts.  Following their two days of deliberation, the jury members return a verdict in favor of the Tinchers.

Omega Flex appealed the decision to the Pennsylvania Superior Court of Appeals, and the Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s decision.  Omega Flex then appealed to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania requesting that the Supreme Court grant review on the question of whether the trial court should replace the strict liability of Section 402A of the Second Restatement of Torts with the analysis under the Third Restatement. On November 19, 2014, the Supreme Court held that it would not adopt the Third Restatement of Torts in strict liability claims.  However, it overruled Azzarello and created a new test for proving whether a product is defective under the Second Restatement of Torts.  The Court held:

The Plaintiff may prove defective condition by showing either that 1) the danger is unknowable and unacceptable to the average or ordinary consumer, or that 2) a reasonable person would conclude that the probability and seriousness of harm caused by the product outweigh the burden or cost of taking precautions.

Tincher v. Omega Flex, Inc., 104 A.3d 328, 335 (Pa. 2014).

Further, the Court held that the issue of whether a product is “defective” is a question of fact that should be submitted to the jury except in cases where it is clear that “reasonable minds could not differ on the issue.”  Therefore, it restored the jury’s ability to determine whether a product was defective by balancing the risks and utilities of a particular product. The court then constructed jury instructions that were relatable to this new two-prong test.

Following the creation of this new two-pronged test, the Supreme Court remanded the case to the trial court, and Omega Flex filed a motion for a new trial. Omega Flex argued that it was entitled to a new trial because the jury, as the fact finder, must have been instructed using the new two-prong test recently created by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The trial court denied Omega Flex’s motion and stated that during the original jury trial, both parties through their witnesses, testimony, and experts presented evidence regarding the CSST’s merits and risks. Following the presentation of the evidence, the case was submitted before a jury. Because the jury heard evidence that would allow it to reason whether the risk outweighed the utility, the trial court’s use of a jury instruction containing the Azzarello definition of “defective” was not prejudicial because the jury likely would have arrived at the same conclusion. Therefore, the holding of the original jury verdict, in favor of the Tinchers, was permitted to stand.

Omega Flex again appealed the trial court’s denial of its motion for a new trial to the Pennsylvania Superior Court of Appeals. The question on appeal was whether “the trial court erred by denying Defendant Omega Flex’s motion for a new trial.” On appeal, the Superior court held that Omega Flex was entitled to a new trial.  It reasoned that following the Supreme Court’s overruling of Azzarello, the jury charge for a strict liability cases created by the Supreme Court of Appeals contained a new definition of “defective.” The jury at the original trial was instructed using the old definition under Azzarello, so it had not been given the opportunity to analyze the evidence using the new definition of “defective” constructed by the Supreme Court. The court went on to reason that the charge defining “defective” was critical to the case. Courts have held that a charge containing an incorrect definition of a term that is critical to an issue is a fundamental error that entitles a party to a new trial. Additionally, the Superior Court held that it was wrong for the trial court to assume that the jury would have arrived at the same conclusion after being instructed with the new charge because it already heard evidence about the risk and utility during the original trial. Therefore, it found that the trial court’s original charge based on overruled law was a fundamental error, and Omega Flex was entitled to a new trial.