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Robinson v. Midwest Folding Products Corp.

April 2, 2009

CASSANDRA ROBINSON, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
MIDWEST FOLDING PRODUCTS CORP, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Joyner, J.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Presently before the Court is Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment and the numerous responses thereto. For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's Motion is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. Defendant's Motion in regard to the strict liability design defect and failure to warn claims is GRANTED. Defendant's Motion in regard to the manufacturing defect claims, both in strict liability and negligence, is GRANTED. Defendant's Motion in regard to the negligent design and failure to warn claims is DENIED. Defendant's Motion in regard to the breach of warranty claim is DENIED.

BACKGROUND

In September of 2007, Plaintiff Cassandra Robinson filed suit against Defendant Midwest Folding Products ("Midwest") seeking damages for injuries she alleges were caused by a table Midwest manufactured.*fn1 Specifically, Robinson alleges that on September 15, 2005, she sat down on a bench-style seat of a Midwest folding lunchroom table in the George Clymer Elementary School which, after a few minutes, began to fold up into an A-frame position causing Robinson to fall backwards and severely and permanently injure herself.*fn2

Robinson filed an Amended Complaint on March 6, 2008. The Amended Complaint asserts liability against Midwest in negligence and in strict liability for design defect, manufacturing defect, and failure to warn. Robinson also asserts a breach of warranty--merchantability claim. She alleges that the table folded because the mechanism that locks the table in the open position did not properly engage because the table was not fully opened when it was set up or because the mechanism malfunctioned. She claims that the table is defective because the locking mechanism should be designed with a spring that pulls it into place rather than relying on gravity, which is how the table is currently designed.

On January 30, 2009, Midwest filed the instant Motion for Summary Judgment on all claims. Defendant offers several arguments in support of its Motion. First, it argues that Plaintiff cannot establish causation, required in both negligence and strict liability claims, because Plaintiff has not offered any definitive evidence that the table that caused the injury was one of Defendant's tables. Next, Defendant argues that Plaintiff's strict liability claims must fail because the Expert Report does not establish that the table was "unreasonably dangerous"--a term of art in strict liability claims--and did not present a sufficient alternative design to prove the existence of the alleged defect. In a footnote to this argument, Defendant asserts that if the strict liability design claim fails, the negligence claim also fails because Plaintiff cannot establish a breach of duty. Defendant then argues that Plaintiff did not provide evidence to support its failure to warn claim, which it asserts will also fail if the strict liability design defect claim fails. Defendant next asserts that the warranty claim must fail if the Court finds that the product is not defectively designed. Finally, Defendant asserts that Plaintiff's expert report is inadmissible because it fails the Daubert test.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment is appropriate if "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and . . . the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). Material facts are those that may affect the outcome of the suit. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). An issue of material fact is genuine "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.

If the moving party establishes the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, the burden shifts to the non-moving party to "do more than simply show there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). If the non-moving party bears the burden of persuasion at trial, "the moving party may meet its burden on summary judgment by showing that the nonmoving party's evidence is insufficient to carry that burden." Kaucher v. County of Bucks, 456 F.3d 418, 423 (3d Cir. 2006) (quoting Wetzel v. Tucker, 139 F.3d 380, 383 n. 2 (3d Cir. 1998)). In conducting our review, we view the record in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. See Nicini v. Morra, 212 F.3d 798, 806 (3d Cir. 2000). However, there must be more than a "mere scintilla" of evidence in support of the non-moving party's position to survive the summary judgment stage. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252.

DISCUSSION

A. Manufacturing Defect - Strict Liability and Negligence

A manufacturing defect claim is essentially a claim "that something went awry in the manufacturing process . . . [and] the finder of fact need only compare the product that caused the injury with other products that were manufactured according to specifications." Dambacher v. Mallis, 485 A.2d 408, 426 (Pa. Super. Crt. 1984). The Defendant has moved for summary judgment on the Plaintiff's manufacturing defect claims, both in strict liability and in negligence, and has pointed to Plaintiff's inability to identify the individual table that allegedly caused Plaintiff's injuries. In response to Defendant's motion, Plaintiff concedes that she cannot produce the individual table. Defendant is, therefore, entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiff's manufacturing defect claims. See Roselli, 599 A.2d at 230 (affirming summary judgment in favor of defendant where plaintiff was unable to produce allegedly defective glass carafe in manufacturing defect case); see also Schroeder v. Commonwealth, 710 A.2d 23, 27 (Pa. 1998) (discussing applicability of Roselli to manufacturing defect claims but not to design defect claims).

B. Strict Liability Design Defect / Failure to Warn

In Webb v. Zern, 220 A.2d 853 (Pa. 1966), Pennsylvania adopted section 402A of the Second Restatement of Torts.*fn3 Under section 402A, Pennsylvania law allows a plaintiff to bring a strict liability defective product claim based on three theories of defect: design, manufacturing, and failure to warn. Lancenese v. Vanderlans, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 37102, *6 (E.D. Pa. May 21, 2007). "A central goal of strict liability doctrine is to relieve the plaintiff of proof problems associated with negligence and warranty theories of liability." Griggs v. Bic Corp., 981 F.2d 1429, 1432 (3d Cir. 1992). To prevail on a strict liability claim, "'the plaintiff must prove (1) that the product was defective, (2) that the defect existed when it left the hands of the defendant, and (3) that the defect caused the harm.'" Id. at 17 (quoting Riley v. Warran Mfg., Inc., 688 A.2d 221, 224 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1997)).

Under Pennsylvania law, the threshold determination in strict liability claims is whether the product is "unreasonably dangerous." Kagan v. Harley Davidson, Inc., No. 07-0694, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 63932, at *17 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 20, 2008). Whether a product is "unreasonably dangerous" is a matter of law. Lancenese v. Vanderlans and Sons, Inc., No. 05-5951, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 37102, at *5 (E.D. Pa. May 21, 2007). The judge makes this determination prior to trial by engaging in "'a risk-utility analysis, weighing a product's harms against its social utility.'" Moyer v. United Dominion Industries, Inc., 473 F.3d 532, 538 (3d Cir. 2007) (quoting Surace v. Caterpillar, Inc., 111 F.3d 1039, 1044 (3d Cir. 1997)). "Furthermore, the judge makes the determination under a weighted view of the evidence, considering the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Moyer, 473 F.3d at 538. If the judge finds that, as a matter of law, the product is not unreasonably dangerous, the claim does not go to the jury. Surace, 111 F.3d at 1044.

In making this threshold determination, the judge may consider the following factors:

(1) The usefulness and desirability of the product--its utility to the user and to the public as a whole;

(2) The safety aspects of the product--the likelihood that it will cause injury, and the probable seriousness of the injury;

(3) The availability of a substitute product which would meet the same need and not be as unsafe;

(4) The manufacturer's ability to eliminate the unsafe character of the product without impairing its usefulness or making it too expensive to maintain its utility

(5) The user's ability to avoid danger by the exercise of care in the use of the product;

(6) The user's anticipated awareness of the dangers inherent in the product and their avoidability, because of general public knowledge of the obvious condition of the product, or of the ...


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