I’ve handled many cases, as a Missouri product liability lawyer, in which the manufacturer of a defective product argued that the product would have been safe if the user himself or herself had not been negligent. In Pennsylvania, the state Supreme Court recently clarified how that defense can be used in a product liability case, tightening the standards for making the claim. In Reott v. Asia Trend et al., Duane Reott was injured after he fell from a tree stand, the kind hunters use to sit in trees and look for deer. Reott was using a self-taught maneuver to “set the stand,” but the strap holding the stand in the tree broke and he fell, breaking his wrist and a vertebra. The defendants alleged he was reckless, but the Pennsylvania high court ruled they could only make that claim as an affirmative defense, putting the burden of proof on them.
Reott bought two tree stands, using one many times without incident. The second one was still new in its package when he brought it to his brother’s house to install in a tree there. He strapped it in 25 feet above the ground and climbed on to “set the stand,” which involved bringing his weight down on it to take up any slack in the strap. Although he’d used the maneuver many times without trouble, this time, the strap broke and he fell to the ground. He and his wife, Patty Reott, alleged in their lawsuit that the strap was defective because it was only glued on, not glued and sewn like a seatbelt would be. The trial court granted them a directed verdict on the strap being defective, but allowed trial on whether the defect caused the injuries. The defendants argued that Reott had been highly reckless in setting the stand, and the jury agreed, finding for defendants. On appeal, the Superior Court reversed, finding that the trial court should have treated reckless conduct as an affirmative defense, and thus put the burden of proof on the defendants.
After much analysis, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed. Though the state’s caselaw doesn’t expressly address the issue, it drew an analogy to product misuse and assumption of the risk, which are expressly or impliedly affirmative defenses. It then held that highly reckless conduct is also an affirmative defense. However, the court said, without some further criteria, highly reckless conduct could be incorrectly blended with contributory or comparative negligence “to eviscerate [strict liability product defect] actions.” Thus, it held that reckless conduct can be successfully used as an affirmative defense only when the conduct either caused the injury or superseded the defective nature of the product. And that properly puts the burden of proof on the defendant, the high court said, before affirming the Superior Court’s ruling.
As a St. Louis defective products attorney, I am pleased by this ruling. It slightly tightens and clarifies the rules for products liability actions in Pennsylvania, but in a way that makes it easier for injured people to pursue fair compensation. Because manufacturers are strictly liable for product defects in Pennsylvania (and most other states), the court found that allowing comparative negligence arguments would undercut established law. The ruling it made puts the burden on the defendant to prove that the plaintiff was negligent, rather than asking the plaintiff to prove that he or she was not negligent. Southern Illinois defective products lawyers like me welcome rulings that make it easier for our clients to be compensated.
If you or someone you love suffered a serious injury or lost a loved one because of a defective product, don’t wait to call Carey, Danis & Lowe. To tell us your story and learn more about us, call us toll-free at 1-877-678-3400 or send us an email.
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