Duchess v. Langston Corp.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Citation564 Pa. 529,769 A.2d 1131
PartiesDonald J. DUCHESS and Catherine A. Duchess, Appellees, v. LANGSTON CORPORATION, Appellant.
Decision Date19 April 2001

Joseph J. Bosick, Pittsburgh, for Langston Corporation.

Michael T. Collins, Pittsburgh, for Donald & Catherine Duchess.

James M. Beck, for Product Liability Counsel (Amicus).



SAYLOR, Justice.

Appeal was allowed to determine whether evidence of a subsequent design change should be admissible in a strict products liability action to establish product defect.

On May 12, 1990, Appellee Donald J. Duchess ("Duchess") was injured while cleaning internal components of a machine manufactured by Appellant, Langston Corporation ("Langston"), which was sold to Duchess' employer, 4-M Manufacturing, in June of 1988. In August of 1991, Duchess and his wife commenced the present civil action, asserting causes of action based upon theories of negligence and strict liability. Principally, they contended that the design of the machine was defective, because it lacked an interlock device to halt injurious moving parts upon the opening or removal of their covering guard or shield. Langston took the position that the machine's design was safe, but it admitted in answers to interrogatories to the incorporation of an interlock device at the pertinent location on newly-manufactured machines as of July, 1991, approximately one year after Duchess' accident. Langston filed a pre-trial motion seeking to bar the admission of evidence of this subsequent design change. The trial court initially deferred ruling but ultimately granted the motion, thus precluding the Duchesses from revealing to the jury Langston's subsequent integration of the interlock.

At trial, the Duchesses pursued only the strict products liability claim. Both parties offered detailed testimony describing the machine and its operation to apprise the jury how the accident occurred and provide necessary context for the Duchesses' claim and Langston's defenses. The Saturn III Flexo Folder Gluer and Die Cutter (the "Saturn III") fabricates corrugated board into finished boxes. Its seventy-foot length is divided into functional segments which, respectively, accept sheets of corrugated cardboard; add printed material according to customer specifications; score and slot the cardboard; place strips of glue; fold; and count finished boxes. A main drive powers a conveyor system guiding the materials through the process, and auxiliary motors drive specific functional sections, with various controls positioned throughout, including three "emergency stop buttons" that primarily affect the main drive, and a single main disconnect switch controlling power to all components.

Duchess was injured on one of two portions of the Saturn III dedicated to flexography, a printing method that utilizes fast-drying ink. The components of this segment are inaccessible during normal operations, but, during cleaning, the sections are separated to permit access. Upon division, a hinged ink shield is exposed, which may be opened or removed to reveal the printing components, including an engraved, inking roll carrying a trade name of "anilox";1 a wiper roll; a print cylinder, to which the actual printing elements are attached; and an impression cylinder. The anilox and wiper rolls operate in tandem, both turning inward toward a point of contact called a "nip point"; the wiper roll is powered by an auxiliary motor, whereas the anilox roll is not independently powered but operates dependent upon friction resulting from contact with the wiper roll. Functionally, printing is accomplished by funneling liquid ink into the nip point between the anilox and wiper rolls, where it forms a reservoir, with the operator manipulating the proximity of the rolls to adjust flow and, correspondingly, print quality. Minute engravings in the anilox roll capture miniscule quantities of ink, which is transferred to the printing elements in measured amounts. Apparently, the rolls turn in relative silence; however, a green light on the side of the print section illuminates during operation.

Duchess testified that his injuries occurred after he had placed his hand into the opening to adjust a water spray nozzle, part of an automated cleaning system, located above the wiper roll. He indicated that he had depressed an emergency stop button, which he believed would de-energize all of the Saturn III's moving components; he further stated that his observation that the anilox roll was stationary seemed to confirm this belief.2 According to Duchess, he had separated the anilox and wiper rolls to facilitate cleaning; he was unaware that the wiper roll was powered by an auxiliary motor that was not affected by the emergency control employed; and he was also unaware of the control relationship between the anilox and wiper rolls (i.e., that, if separated, the wiper roll could be turning although the anilox roll was not). Duchess also suggested that the green light that indicated operation of the wiper roll was not readily visible to him.3 Duchess' gloved left hand touched the rotating wiper roller and was drawn into the nip point; the resulting injuries required amputation of his ring and small fingers, as well as a segment of his middle finger.

In addition to providing such background, the Duchesses offered testimony from a liability expert, a mechanical engineer, to support their claim that the absence of an interlock device at the ink shield location constituted a design defect. The expert described the operation of an interlock, indicating that such devices are frequently used in common appliances, such as residential washing machines and dryers, and expressed the opinion that its integration into the Saturn III's ink shield was necessary to render the machine safe. Langston expressly conceded that an interlock was feasible, but it limited this concession to an admission that the design change would have been technologically possible at the time the Saturn III was sold to Duchess' employer. Langston then presented evidence and argument to the effect that the change was impractical because: the location of the components at a site that is inaccessible during normal operations, as well as easily-applied precautions to be taken during setup and cleaning, were sufficient to ensure reasonable safety; access to the printing components while active was necessary to make adjustments to the ink flow during set-up, and therefore, proper printing would be precluded by the introduction of a print-shield interlock; and interlock devices have the potential disadvantage of functioning as an inappropriate "reliance mechanism," which operators may come to utilize in place of proper safety measures. Although the Duchesses argued that Langston's strategy opened the door to the admission of the evidence of subsequent incorporation of an interlock (since evidence of subsequent remedial measures may generally be admitted where feasibility is contested, see Pa. R.E. 407 (see generally infra note 9)), the trial court agreed with Langston's position distinguishing feasibility from practicality, observing that Langston "had not taken the position that adding an interlock was not capable of being carried out."

At the conclusion of trial, the jury received special interrogatories, the first of which inquired whether the lack of an interlock device on the ink shield of the Saturn III constituted a design defect. The jury answered in the negative, resulting in a verdict in favor of Langston, and the trial court denied post-trial motions.

On appeal, a divided panel of the Superior Court reversed and awarded a new trial in favor of the Duchesses based, inter alia, on the conclusion that the trial court erred in failing to allow them to introduce evidence of the subsequent design change to the Saturn III. See Duchess v. Langston Corp., 709 A.2d 410 (Pa.Super. 1998)

.4 The majority opened its analysis by acknowledging the evidential principle that proofs related to subsequent repair are generally inadmissible in a negligence action. See Duchess, 709 A.2d at 412-13 (citations omitted). Citing to Matsko v. Harley Davidson Motor Co., 325 Pa.Super. 452, 473 A.2d 155 (1984), in which the Superior Court had ruled that the common law subsequent repair rule was inapplicable in a products liability case, see id. at 456-61, 473 A.2d at 157-59, the majority described the underpinnings of this "subsequent repair" rule as twofold. First, since the central question in a negligence action is the reasonableness of the defendant's actions in relation to the applicable duty of care measured as of the time of the accident, subsequent repairs are not relevant, as they may be occasioned by a new and potentially different set of circumstances and/or corresponding duties prevailing at the later time. See Duchess, 709 A.2d at 413 (stating that "actions taken with hindsight are not probative of actions taken without such hindsight"). Second, the majority recognized that the prohibition of evidence of subsequent remedial measures is grounded in social policy, the central concern being that allowing its admission might discourage repairs or alterations that would enhance safety or otherwise constitute improvements, since, if the rule were otherwise, the fact of any such change could be employed adversely in a future tort action. See id. at 413. See generally Matsko, 325 Pa.Super. at 456,

473 A.2d at 156 (stating that "`[m]anufacturers should not be inhibited in, or prejudiced by, a good faith effort to protect the public safety and comply with their statutory duty'" (citation omitted)).

According to the Superior Court majority, neither of these justifications applies in the strict liability area. Whereas the majority had indicated that evidence of subsequent repairs was not relevant in a...

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