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DORNEY PARK COASTER CO. v. GE

June 30, 1987

Dorney Park Coaster Company, Inc.
v.
General Electric Company



The opinion of the court was delivered by: TROUTMAN

 TROUTMAN, S.J.

 As the result of a fire which occurred on plaintiff's property, a popular amusement park located near Allentown, Pennsylvania, the plaintiff seeks damages contending that the fire was caused by a defective deep fat fryer, Model HK3, designed, manufactured in 1955 or 1956, and ultimately sold by defendant General Electric Company (GE). The plaintiff seeks to hold GE strictly liable for said property damage pursuant to Section 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts. *fn1" The parties agree that the law of Pennsylvania applies to this case.

 It is undisputed that the fire originated in the deep fat fryer manufactured by GE. On September 28, 1983, one of plaintiff's employees, as part of the park's "winterization" process, turned the subject fryer on and set the thermostat at 300 degrees F. He did this to allow the congealed oil to liquify so that he could drain the oil and clean the fryer. After he turned on the fryer, he left the foodstand in which the fryer was located so that he could commence the same process with other deep fat fryers located in other areas of the park. Approximately fifteen minutes later, the fire was discovered.

 Subsequent investigation lead to the conclusion that the contacts within the thermostat of the fryer had welded together, thereby permitting an uninterrupted flow of electricity to the fryer's heating element which allowed the cooking oil in the fryer to heat to the point of self-ignition. *fn2" The plaintiff contends that the fryer was defective when placed in commerce by GE because it did not incorporate into the fryer any "safety high limit temperature device which would have operated to terminate electric current to the heating element and prevent an overtemperature condition and resulting self-ignition of the oil . . ." (Plaintiff's Sur Reply Memorandum of Law, Doc. No. 56, p. 3). GE presently seeks summary judgment on various grounds.

 We may grant summary judgment only if there are no genuine issues of material fact, and if the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ.P. 56; see also, Tigg Corporation v. Dow Corning Corporation, 822 F.2d 358 (3d Cir. 1987).

 I. Section 402A and Social Policy.

 GE first contends that it should not be held strictly liable for the plaintiff's losses as a matter of social policy. Here, GE argues that in light of, inter alia, the fact that the fryer was 27 years old, that the original thermostat had been replaced and that the plaintiff had failed to properly maintain the fryer, the risk of loss should not be placed upon it. GE further argues that it was not required to supply a product which would not wear out.

 In Azzarello v. Black Bros. Co., Inc. (Azzarello), 480 Pa. 547, 391 A. 2d 1020 (1978), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court stated that the question whether "an ill-conceived design which exposes the user to the risk of harm entitle(s) one injured by the product to recover" and the question "when does the utility of a product outweigh the unavoidable danger it may pose" are "questions of law", the resolution of which depends upon an examination of applicable "social policy". 391 A. 2d at 1026. *fn3" The court further stated that,

 
It is a judicial function to decide whether, under plaintiff's averment of the facts, recovery would be justified; and only after this judicial determination is made is the cause submitted to the jury to determine whether the facts of the case support the averments of the complaint.

 Id. (Emphasis added).

 The language quoted above has caused some concern among trial courts as to its exact meaning. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals, in Hammond v. International Harvester, supra, decisively concluded, in interpreting Azzarello, that,

 
This issue of whether the risk of loss should be placed on the supplier is a question of law for the court to decide with an eye toward the 'social policy' underlying Pennsylvania products liability law. (citation omitted). The trial court must exercise its own judgment in determining whether the facts alleged by plaintiff, if true, would justify imposition of strict liability. Only after the court answers that question in the ...

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