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Morris v. Phoenix Installation & Management Co.

United States District Court, Third Circuit

December 30, 2013

SCOTT R. MORRIS, Plaintiff,
v.
PHOENIX INSTALLATION & MANAGEMENT CO., et al., Defendants,
v.
DECO-TOOLS, Third-Party Defendant.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

CATHY BISSOON, District Judge.

I. MEMORANDUM

For the reasons that follow, Defendant Phoenix's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 97) and Third-Party Defendant Deco's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 87) will be denied. Furthermore, Defendant Uchihama's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 91) will be granted regarding the strict liability and warranty claims brought against it, but denied regarding negligence.

BACKGROUND

The parties are well acquainted with the facts, and the Court will provide only a brief summary for context. Plaintiff has brought this product liability lawsuit, alleging injuries he suffered in a workplace accident. Plaintiff was performing maintenance on an automobile-painting onveyor line, when the conveyor started moving and his ankle was crushed by a pallet. See generally Phoenix's Br. (Doc. 99) at 1-2. Prior to attempting the repair, Plaintiff pressed two "hold" buttons, one in the "paint kitchen" and one on the "Deco" control panel, believing that this would stop the conveyor line until the repair was finished. See id. at 6. Plaintiff alleges that, because the "hold" buttons did not in fact "hold, " the conveyor was defectively designed, and he has sued Phoenix, who sold and installed the machinery, and Uchihama, who provided consulting services regarding "best practices and procedures" for painting automobile parts, including use of the conveyor line. See generally Phoenix's Br. (Doc. 99) at 2; Uchihama's Br. (Doc. 92) at 2.

Phoenix has brought in Deco as a Third-Party Defendant, and that company manufactured and installed robots on the conveyor line. See Deco's Facts (Doc. 90) at ¶ 30. One of the two hold buttons pressed by Plaintiff was located on a control panel installed by Deco. Id. at ¶ 23. Deco has introduced evidence that the hold button on the Deco panel, while physically placed on the panel by one of Deco's employees, was installed at the behest of Eric Rendon. Mr. Rendon was an agent of the sister-company of Plaintiff's employer, and, according to Phoenix, it was Mr. Rendon who decided to install both hold buttons involved in this lawsuit. See Phoenix's Br. (Doc. 104) at 4. Phoenix also has introduced evidence that Mr. Rendon received substantial training from, and had significant contacts with, Uchihama regarding the conveyor line. See generally id. at 3-4.

ANALYSIS

A. Phoenix's Motion for Summary Judgment

Although the Court is not entirely surprised that Phoenix has moved for summary judgment, it would seem fairly obvious to a sophisticated reader that its defenses in this case are ill-suited for judicial resolution, as opposed to decided by a jury. This conclusion is sufficiently self-evident that the Court does not believe it a good use of judicial resources to provide more than brief-and-to-the-point explanations rejecting Phoenix's arguments. Were the undersigned's analyses more full-throated, the result would be the same, and, in any event, the Court will extend the courtesy of saying more than simply, "denied."

First, the Court rejects Phoenix's arguments under the Restatement (Second) of Torts, because the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has made clear that the Restatement (Third) currently must be applied. Compare Phoenix's Br. (Doc. 99) at 9-16 (making arguments under Restatement (Second)) with Sikkelee v. Precision Airmotive Corp. , 2012 WL 5077571, *1 (3d Cir. Oct. 17, 2012) (holding, several months after decision in Beard v. Johnson & Johnson, Inc. , 41 A.3d 823 (Pa. 2012), viewed by some as modifying law in question, that district courts still should follow 3d Cir. precedent predicting application of Restatement (Third)). Although the issue of which Restatement applies now is pending before the Supreme Court in Tincher v. Omega Flex, Inc. , 64 A.3d 626 (Pa. 2013), the undersigned will not entertain requests to revisit this issue unless and until that Court speaks.

Second, as to the Restatement (Third), the Court disagrees with Phoenix's assertion that the Court may decide, as a matter of law, that it was unforeseeable that Plaintiff would use the hold buttons for the purpose of stopping the conveyor line during maintenance and repair. See Phoenix's Br. (Doc. 99) at 17-18. Plaintiff has introduced evidence showing that other employees, as well as a Uchihama engineer present at the time of the accident, likewise believed that "hold" meant "hold." See Pl.'s Br. (Doc. 114) at 13-14 (citing record evidence). Foreseeability is an issue for the jury.

Third, Defendant has not demonstrated its entitlement to summary judgment based on Plaintiff's assumption of risk. See Phoenix's Br. (Doc. 99) at 18-20. It is not clear whether the assumption-of-risk doctrine applies under the Restatement (Third). See Dep't of Planning & Natural Res. v. Century Aluminum Co., 2012 WL 4450834, *4 n.6 (D. V.I. Sept. 26, 2012) (interpreting state statute materially identical to Rest. (3d) as "ha[ving] abandoned [s]pecial ameliorative doctrines for defining plaintiff's negligence, including assumption of the risk") (citation to quoted source omitted). Even if the doctrine applies, at best it presents a jury question. See Longwell v. Giordano , 57 A.3d 163, 169-70 (Pa.Super. 2012) (assumption-of-risk is "a subjective [standard], " applicable only "where it is beyond question that [plaintiff] voluntarily and knowingly proceeded in the face of an obvious and dangerous condition") (citation to quoted sources omitted).

Fourth, Phoenix is not entitled to summary judgment based on Plaintiff's alleged negligence- per-se in failing to observe OSHA regulations requiring him to "lock out/tag out" (a more thorough procedure for shutting down the conveyor line). See Phoenix's Br. (Doc. 99) at 20-21. Plaintiff has introduced evidence that his employer did not have, and/or did not observe, lock out/tag out procedures. See Pl.'s Br. (Doc. 114) at 17 (citing record evidence). The same evidence regarding other employees' belief that "hold means hold" precludes an entry of summary judgment on this issue. See discussion supra (finding that foreseeability is jury question). Furthermore, Pennsylvania courts have held that a failure to comply with OHSA regulations does not constitute negligence per se. Export Boxing & Crating Inc. v. Tech Met, 2003 WL 22272981, 62 Pa. D. & C.4th 45, 57-58 & n.3 (Pa. Comm. Pl. Mar. 6, 2003).

Fifth, the Court concludes that Phoenix has not demonstrated entitlement to summary judgment on Plaintiff's warranty claims. Phoenix briefly challenged these claims in its opening brief, Plaintiff made colorable arguments in opposition, and Phoenix offers no rebuttal in reply. See Doc. 99 at 21-23, Doc. 114 at 20-21 and Doc. 120. The parties' decision to invest little energy regarding these issues is sensible, as it is commonly recognized that warranty claims are, in most contexts, indistinguishable from claims of strict liability. See Gumbs v. Int'l Harvester, Inc. , 718 F.2d 88, 94-95 (3d Cir. 1983) (collecting decisions recognizing that "the elements of the two theories are essentially the same"); see also, e.g., Mendoza v. Gribetz Int'l, Inc., 2011 WL 2117610, *5 (E.D. Pa. May 27, 2011) (holding same ...


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