Lewis v. Coffing Hoist Div., Duff-Norton Co., Inc.

Decision Date09 July 1987
Docket NumberDUFF-NORTON
Citation515 Pa. 334,528 A.2d 590
Parties, Prod.Liab.Rep. (CCH) P 11,497 Eugene R. LEWIS and Jane Lewis, his wife, Appellees, v. COFFING HOIST DIVISION,CO., INC., Appellants.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

Thomas F. Traud, Jr., Ronald L. Clever, Allentown, for appellants.

Robert C. Brown, Jr., Easton, for appellees.

Before NIX, C.J., and LARSEN, FLAHERTY, McDERMOTT, HUTCHINSON, ZAPPALA and PAPADAKOS, JJ.

OPINION

NIX, Chief Justice.

This is an appeal by an equipment manufacturer from a decision of the Superior Court, affirming the denial of the manufacturer's motion for a new trial following an adverse jury verdict in a products liability case. We granted review to consider the appellant's assignments of error with respect to certain evidentiary rulings made by the trial court.

On August 1, 1978, Eugene Lewis, one of the appellees herein, was seriously injured while in the course of his employment on the production line of S.I. Handling Systems, Inc. At the time of his injury, Lewis was operating an overhead, electric chain-hoist to lift into position a sizeable, metal carriage assembly, which was a component of a machine being produced by his employer. The overhead electric hoist was such that it could be started and stopped, and its load maneuvered into various positions, by means of a "control pendant," which was comprised of a control box attached to a cable leading to the hoist motor overhead. The cable was expandable to a distance of about fifteen feet, making the control box, to a degree, portable. Protruding from the surface of the box were push-type buttons by which the hoist was operated. Accordingly, physical depression of one of the buttons would activate the hoist and cause it to perform one of its functions.

The injury to Lewis occurred when a carriage assembly became jammed on one of the hoists because of a stuck chain. In an effort to correct the situation, he moved the control pendant to a certain position relative to the suspended load. In the course of doing that he stumbled and fell, causing his thumb to strike the "down" button on the control box. As a result, the front end of the carriage assembly held aloft by the hoist chain became unstuck, swung forward, and hit Lewis in both legs. Besides suffering bruises, contusions and lacerations in the lower portions of both legs, Lewis also suffered fractures of the fibia and tibia of his right leg. As a consequence of his injuries, he was out of work for a year.

The electric hoist was a product of the Coffing Hoist Division of the Duff-Norton Company ("Coffing"). As a result of the injuries suffered by Eugene Lewis, he and his wife filed against Coffing, in the Court of Common Pleas of Northampton County, an action asserting strict liability in tort pursuant to Section 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, and also included counts charging negligence and breach of warranty. The complaint alleged, inter alia, that the control box for the hoist was defectively designed in that there was no guard or other protective feature over the buttons on the box to prevent accidental activation of the hoist. Just prior to trial the plaintiffs elected to proceed only on the theory of strict liability under Section 402A of the Restatement of Torts.

Based on an in limine motion by the plaintiffs, the trial court made certain rulings concerning the admissibility of evidence at trial. First, the court barred the defendant from putting into evidence a publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers ("ASME") setting forth standards respecting the manufacture of electric hoists and other industrial lifting equipment. The trial court excluded this evidence on the ground that the ASME publication was totally silent on the subject of the design and guarding of buttons on the control pendants of electric hoists. The court also ruled that the defendant could not present testimony, through its expert witness, that "at least ninety percent" of the electric hoists made in this country had control boxes devoid of any type of guard around the activating buttons. In excluding Coffing's evidence on this point, the court concluded that proof of the defendant's compliance with industry-wide standards, practices and customs would inject into the case concepts of negligence law, and that under our decision in Azzarello v. Black Bros. Co., 480 Pa. 547, 391 A.2d 1020 (1978), negligence concepts have no role in a case based entirely on strict liability under Section 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts.

When the case came on for trial, the plaintiffs presented an expert witness who testified that the control box in question was defectively designed in that the push-type buttons should have been recessed instead of protruding from the surface of the box, or should have had metal flanges around them. According to the plaintiffs' expert, each of these alternative designs would have been safer than the defendant's because they would prevent unexpected activation of the hoist through inadvertent physical contact with the buttons. In support of his further opinion that the suggested design alternatives were technologically and economically feasible, this witness was permitted to show the jury a model of a control box which featured recessed control buttons. He was also allowed to display photographs of an actual control box, made by another manufacturer of electric hoists, which had flanges around the control buttons.

Coffing called only one witness, Mr. William Ellis, who was the company's "Director of Products Reliability." Mr. Ellis testified that the control pendant involved in the case was designed in 1964 and was no longer used after 1977. He also stated that the instant case represented the first complaint about the safety of Coffing's control device, and that, in his opinion, it was safely designed. Ellis further opined that the model presented by the plaintiffs' expert witness, featuring recessed buttons, presented a greater risk of accidental activation than the defendant's. Regarding the plaintiffs' photographs showing an actual control box with protective flanges around its buttons, the defendant sought to offer proof that the manufacturer of that device also made one which had no type of guard around the buttons. The trial court barred that evidence as being irrelevant.

The jury returned a verdict in favor of Eugene Lewis in the amount of $51,692.80, and in favor of his wife for $5,000.00. After the court added delay damages, the respective awards were $63,036.72 and $6,097.27.

In its motion for a new trial Coffing did not challenge the sufficiency of the plaintiffs' evidence to support the verdicts, but asserted that the evidentiary rulings mentioned above constituted reversible error. The motion was denied by a court en banc, which endorsed the trial court's reasoning as to the evidence involved. Following the entry of judgment on the verdicts, Coffing appealed to the Superior Court. That tribunal affirmed in a memorandum opinion. 346 Pa.Super. 639, 499 A.2d 404 (1985). Coffing next petitioned this Court for an allowance of appeal, which we granted.

As indicated, the question presented by this appeal is whether the trial court properly excluded the appellant's evidence of industry standards and practices relating to the design of control boxes for electric hoists. To resolve this issue, we must start by observing that the fundamental consideration in determining the admissibility of any evidence is its relevance to the fact sought to be proved. Martin v. Soblotney, 502 Pa. 418, 466 A.2d 1022 (1983). To be relevant, evidence must, as an initial matter, seek to raise an inference which bears upon "a matter in issue" in the case. Commonwealth v. Scott, 480 Pa. 50, 389 A.2d 79 (1978); Commonwealth v. Kichline, 468 Pa. 265, 361 A.2d 282 (1976); Commonwealth v. Stewart, 461 Pa. 274, 336 A.2d 282 (1975). The "matter in issue" in any lawsuit is determined mainly by the pleadings and the applicable substantive law. McCormick, Evidence § 185 (3d ed. E. Cleary 1984).

Section 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, upon which the appellees exclusively relied for their right of recovery, provides as follows:

(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. (Emphasis added.)

It is now well established that the foregoing provision imposes strict liability in tort not only for injuries caused by the defective manufacture of products, but also for injuries caused by defects in their design. E.g., Azzarello v. Black Bros. Co., supra; Cronin v. J.B.E. Olson Corp., 8 Cal.3d 121, 104 Cal.Rptr. 433, 501 P.2d 1153 (1972). It must be noted, however, that Section 402A provides no definition of the term "defect," and thus, of itself, does not afford an effective working guide as to what kinds of factual circumstances will result in the imposition of strict liability on a manufacturer for injuries which are caused by its product. Consequently, the various jurisdictions have fashioned diverse formulas, most especially with regard to the subject of design defects.

One such approach to the question of design defect looks to "consumer expectations." Under this standard, a product may be found defective in design if it failed to perform as safely as an ordinary...

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