Pennsylvania Supreme Court Establishes Rule for Defense of Product Liability Suits - Reott v. Asia Trend et al.

December 18, 2012

As a Philadelphia injury lawyer, I was interested to see a state Supreme Court decision that makes it a little easier for injured people and their families to win cases involving defective products. In Reott v. Asia Trend et al., the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that if a defendant in a products liability case wants to argue that the plaintiff was highly reckless, the defendant must plead it as an affirmative defense. This puts the burden of proof on the defendant, the court said, rather than on the plaintiff to prove that he or she was not reckless. The plaintiffs in this case were Duane Reott, who was seriously injured while using a tree stand, and his wife, Patty Reott. The defendants argued that Duane Reott was highly reckless in his use of the tree stand, and the jury agreed. On appeal, however, the high court said the defendants didn't adequately prove that claim.

The tree stands at issue are tree-mounted platforms that allow hunters to sit in trees and watch for deer, so they are installed high above the ground. Duane Reott bought two tree stands through his brother, and used one without incident multiple times. He brought the other one, still new in its box, to another brother's house to install in a tree there. He climbed 25 feet and cinched the locking strap of the platform around the tree, then bear-hugged the tree and gave a small jump on the platform in order to remove any remaining slack from the strap. Reott had done this "setting the stand" many times without problems, but this time, the strap broke and he fell, crushing a vertebra and breaking his wrist. He and his wife sued four entities involved in manufacturing and selling the stand, alleging a manufacturing defect because the strap was merely glued on, rather than both glued and stitched like a seatbelt.

At trial, the court granted a directed verdict on the issue of the defect itself, but sent the issue of whether the defect caused Reott's injury to a jury. The defendants argued that Reott was highly reckless in "setting the stand," however, and the jury agreed. Reott appealed to the Superior Court, saying the defendants should not have been permitted to present evidence of recklessness as a rebuttal because it left him with the sole burden of proof. The Superior Court agreed, saying the evidence should have been presented as an affirmative defense, and ordering a new trial on damages. Defendants appealed.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed with the Superior Court that recklessness should best be presented as an affirmative defense in product liability cases. It drew a comparison between the established affirmative defense of assumption of risk; the less well-established affirmative defense of product misuse; and the closely related reckless conduct. However, it noted, such a defense could be incorrectly entangled with contributory negligence. Thus, it held that if a defendant wishes to plead highly reckless conduct, it must do so as an affirmative defense. Thus, the burden of proof is in the defendant to show that the recklessness was the sole or superseding cause of the injuries, the court said. It affirmed the Superior Court.

This ruling does not take away a defendant's ability to argue that a plaintiff was reckless in using a product--but it puts the burden of proof for that assertion on the defendant, where it should be. Putting it on the plaintiff would force the plaintiff to show that he or she was not reckless, and it's difficult to truly prove a negative. That's why, as a Philadelphia accident lawyer, I'm pleased by this ruling.

Rosenbaum & Associates represents clients who have been seriously injured or lost a loved one because of someone else's carelessness. If your family has suffered a bad accident in eastern Pennsylvania and you'd like to know more about your rights and your legal options, call us today at 1-800-7-LEGAL-7 or send us an email for a free consultation.

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