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Thomas v. Staples, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

March 4, 2014

MADALYN THOMAS, a minor, by her parent and natural guardian, JASON THOMAS, and in his own right, Plaintiffs,
STAPLES, INC. and EXECUTIVE MACHINCES, INC. d/b/a JEAM IMPORTS, Defendants/Third Party Plaintiffs.
JASON and AMY THOMAS, Third-Party Defendants.


PETRESE B. TUCKER, Chief District Judge.

Presently before the Court is Defendants Staples, Inc. and Executive Machines, Inc. d/b/a Jeam Imports' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 48) and Plaintiffs Madalyn Thomas and Jason Thomas' Response in Opposition (Doc. 51). Upon consideration of the parties' motions with briefs and exhibits, and for the reasons set forth below, Defendants' Motion will be granted in part and denied in part.


Plaintiffs Madalyn Thomas, by and through her parent and natural guardian, Jason Thomas, and Jason Thomas, in his own right (hereinafter "Plaintiffs"), bring the instant personal injury action against Defendants Staples, Inc. and Executive Machines, Inc. d/b/a Jeam Imports (collectively, "Defendants"). Plaintiffs allege that Plaintiff Madalyn Thomas ("Madalyn"), then 19 months old, while at her home, sustained personal injury on May 25, 2008 when her fingers became entrapped in the opening of a MailMate Paper Shredder. Plaintiff Jason Thomas ("Jason") is Madalyn's father. Defendant Executive Machines d/b/a Jeam Imports manufactured, assembled, and distributed the MailMate Paper Shredder in question.

Plaintiffs allege that the MailMate Paper Shredder was purchased online from on or about November 15, 2006 by Amy Thomas ("Amy"), Madalyn's mother, while at her home in Dallas, Pennsylvania. In choosing the paper shredder, Amy Thomas avers that her main considerations were that the shredder be compact and easy to use. The shredder arrived shortly after the date of purchase and was placed on a countertop in the Thomas' kitchen, where it remained until the date of the incident on May 25, 2008. Jason and Amy Thomas routinely used the shredder for the purpose of keeping their "junk mail" under control and securing their personal information. Either Jason or Amy would stand in front of the counter and insert material into the machine to be shredded.

On the morning of May 25, 2008, Amy Thomas was in the process of shredding mail in the MailMate Paper Shredder when Madalyn started crying and began to pull on Amy's leg. At this point, while the shredder was still operating, Amy picked up Madalyn and placed her on her left hip. Having made no attempt to unplug or turn off the shredder, Amy turned away from Madalyn to get Madalyn some candy; as Amy turned back around to face Madalyn, she saw that Madalyn's left hand had become stuck in the shredder. Upon realizing that Madalyn's fingers were stuck in the shredder, Amy unplugged the machine. Amy does not recall whether there was noise coming from the machine when Madalyn's fingers became stuck, whether Madalyn pulled away from her in order to reach out to the machine, or whether any portion of the envelope she had placed in the machine was still in the process of shredding. Jason was able to extract Madalyn's hand from the shredder with the use of a crowbar. Subsequently, Madalyn was transported to Wilkes-Barre Hospital for initial examination and then transported to Hershey Medical Center, where surgery was performed. Madalyn's two partially-amputated fingers could not be reattached.

Subsequently, Plaintiffs commenced this action on August 18, 2009 with the filing of a Complaint against Staples, Inc. On April 13, 2010, Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint adding Executive Machines, Inc. d/b/a Jeam Imports as a second defendant. Plaintiff's Amended Complaint includes claims for strict liability, negligence, breach of express warranty, breach of implied warranty, and compensatory and punitive damages. Thereafter, on May 9, 2011, Defendants filed a Third-Party Complaint joining Jason and Amy Thomas as Third Party Defendants, averring that the incident described in the Plaintiff's Amended Complaint was due to the carelessness and negligence of the Third Party Defendants. Defendants now move for summary judgment on all of Plaintiffs' claims.


Summary judgment is appropriate where the moving party establishes that "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that [it] is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed R. Civ P. 56(a); see also Levy v. Sterling Holding Co., LLC , 544 F.3d 493, 501 (3d Cir. 2008). A factual dispute between the parties will not defeat a motion for summary judgment unless it is both genuine and material. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986); Dee v. Borough of Dunmore , 549 F.3d 225, 229 (3d Cir. 2008). A factual dispute is genuine if a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-movant, and it is material if, under the substantive law, it would affect the outcome of the suit. See Anderson , 477 U.S. at 248; Fakete v. Aetna, Inc. , 308 F.3d 335, 337 (3d Cir. 2002).

The moving party must show that if the evidentiary material of record were reduced to admissible evidence in court, it would be insufficient to permit the non-moving party to carry its burden of proof. See Celotex v. Catrett , 477 U.S. 317, 327 (1986). Once the moving party has carried its burden under Rule 56, "its' opponent must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Scott v. Harris , 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007). Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e), the opposing party must set forth specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial and may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of its pleadings. See Marten v. Godwin , 499 F.3d 290, 295 (3d Cir. 2007).

At the summary judgment stage the court's function is not to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter, but rather to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial. See Anderson , 477 U.S. at 249; Jiminez v. All American Rathskeller, Inc. , 503 F.3d 247, 253 (3d Cir. 2007). In doing so, the court must construe the facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See Horsehead Indus., Inc. v. Paramount Communications, Inc. , 258 F.3d 132 (3d Cir. 2001). The court must award summary judgment on all claims unless the non-moving party shows through affidavits or admissible evidence that an issue of material fact remains. See, e.g., Love v. Rancocas Hosp. , 270 F.Supp.2d 576, 579 (D.N.J. 2003); Koch Materials Co. v. Shore Slurry Seal, Inc. , 205 F.Supp.2d 324, 330 (D.N.J. 2002).


A. Strict Liability (Count II)

1. Applicable Law: The Restatement (Third) of Torts

As an initial matter, the Court must first address whether the Restatement (Second) or Restatement (Third) of Torts applies to Plaintiffs' strict liability claim in the matter sub judice. It is undisputed that the substantive law of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania supplies the rule of decision for the disposition of the Plaintiffs' strict products liability claims. 28 U.S.C. § 1652; see Chamberlain v. Giampapa , 210 F.3d 154, 158 (3d Cir.2000) (citing Erie R.R. v. Tompkins , 304 U.S. 64, 78, 58 S.Ct. 817, 82 L.Ed. 1188 (1938)). At the commencement of this lawsuit on August 18, 2009, Plaintiffs brought their strict liability claim pursuant to § 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts. (See Compl. ¶ 39.) This may have been the appropriate law at that time. In past products liability cases, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has applied § 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts. See Webb v. Zern , 422 Pa. 424, 220 A.2d 853, 854 (1966) ("We hereby adopt the foregoing language [of § 402A] as the law of Pennsylvania."). Section 402A provides:

§ 402A Special Liability of Seller of Product for Physical Harm to User or Consumer
(1) 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.
(2) The rule stated in Subsection (1) applies although
(a) the seller has exercised all possible care in the preparation and sale of his product, and
(b) the user or consumer has not bought the product from or entered into any contractual relation with the seller.

Restatement (Second) of Torts § 402A (1965) (emphasis added). Thus, § 402A makes sellers liable for harm caused to consumers by unreasonably dangerous products even if the seller exercised reasonable care.

Problematically, however, "Section 402A instructs courts to ignore evidence that the seller exercised all possible care in the preparation and sale of his product, ' § 402A(2)(a), yet imposes liability only for products that are unreasonably dangerous, ' § 402A(1)." Covell v. Bell Sports, Inc. , 651 F.3d 357, 361 (3d Cir. 2011), cert. denied, 558 U.S. 1011 , 132 S.Ct. 1541, 182 L.Ed.2d 162 (2012). Negligence concepts are thus intrinsic to the language of § 402A, despite the provision's and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's protestations to the contrary. See Phillips v. Cricket Lighters , 576 Pa. 644, 655-56, 841 A.2d 1000, 1006-07 (2003) (hereinafter "Phillips I") (conceding that even though the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had "remained steadfast in [its] proclamations that negligence concepts should not be imported into strict liability law, [the Court had] muddied the waters at times with the careless use of negligence terms in the strict liability arena."); see also id. at 1012 (Saylor, J., concurring) ("Central conceptions borrowed from negligence theory are embedded in strict products liability doctrine in Pennsylvania.") The inherent contradiction apparent in the language of § 402A has resulted in products liability case law in Pennsylvania that is "almost unfathomable." Schmidt v. Boardman Co. , 608 Pa. 327, 353, 11 A.3d 924, 940 (2011) (quoting James A. Henderson, Jr. & Aaron D. Twerski, Achieving Consensus on Defective Product Design, 83 Cornell L.Rev. 867, 897 (1998)); see also Phillips I , 841 A.2d at 1016 (Saylor, J., concurring) ("There are several ambiguities and inconsistencies in Pennsylvania's [products liability] procedure... which render our law idiosyncratic.") (internal citation omitted). Furthermore, it is also unclear under Pennsylvania case law whether a bystander has the right to recover in a products liability action. Berrier v. Simplicity Mfg., Inc. , 563 F.3d 38, 46-53 (3d Cir. 2009) (reviewing Pennsylvania appellate decisions regarding bystander liability).

Against this backdrop, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Berrier v. Simplicity Mfg., Inc . offered a prediction regarding the potential path of Pennsylvania products liability law. 563 F.3d at 40, cert. denied, 558 U.S. 1011 , 130 S.Ct. 553, 175 L.Ed.2d 383 (2009). Specifically, Berrier Court was presented with the issue of whether, under Pennsylvania law, the Restatement (Second) or Restatement (Third) governed the potential imposition of strict liability on manufacturers for injuries sustained by bystanders harmed by their products. The Third Circuit predicted that "if the Pennsylvania Supreme Court were confronted with this issue, it would adopt the Restatement (Third) of Torts, §§ 1 and 2, and thereby afford bystanders a cause of action in strict liability...." Id . For its part, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, despite several recent opportunities to do so, has yet to explicitly rule on whether the Restatement (Third) of Torts now provides the controlling analysis for products liability claims. See e.g., Schmidt v. Boardman Co. , 608 Pa. 327, 11 A.3d 924, 940-41 (2011); Beard v. Johnson & Johnson, Inc., 615 Pa. 99, 41 A.3d 823 (2012); Lance v. Wyeth, 17 EAP 2011, 2014 WL 260309, at *14 n.23 (Pa. Jan. 21, 2014) ("[W]e have acknowledged difficulties with some of the concepts and conventions which have been employed to buttress the theoretical divide between strict products liability and negligence theory....While it is beyond the scope of this opinion to provide the needed reconciliation, clarification, or modification, we recently allowed appeal in Tincher v. Omega Flex, Inc., ___ Pa. ____, 64 A.3d 626 (2013) ( per curiam ), with the hopes of doing so in such case.") The Third Circuit, however, has continued to reiterate its holding in Berrier that federal district courts sitting in diversity and applying Pennsylvania law to products liability cases should look to sections 1 and 2 of the Restatement (Third) of Torts. Covell , 651 F.3d at 362 (3d Cir. 2011); see also Sikkelee v. Precision Airmotive Corp., No. 12-8081 , 2012 WL 5077571 (3d Cir. Oct. 17, 2012).

Thus, given that (1) the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has not expressly disavowed the Third Circuit's holdings in Berrier, Covell, and Sikkelee, and (2) the Third Circuit's prediction regarding Pennsylvania state law is binding on this Court absent a decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to the contrary, this Court must and will apply sections 1 and 2 of the Restatement (Third) of Torts in the instant matter. Section 1 of the Restatement (Third) provides: "One engaged in the business of selling or otherwise distributing products who sells or distributes a defective product is ...

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