Majdic v. Cincinnati Mach. Co.

Decision Date29 January 1988
Parties, Prod.Liab.Rep. (CCH) P 11,673 Henry MAJDIC and Ann Majdic, his wife, Appellants, v. CINCINNATI MACHINE COMPANY, a/k/a Cincinnati Schafer Company of America, Appellee.
CourtPennsylvania Superior Court

Nicholas S. Mattise, Scranton, for appellants.

Stephen W. Saunders, Scranton, Pittsburgh, for appellee.

Before CIRILLO, President Judge, and BROSKY, WIEAND, OLSZEWSKI, DEL SOLE, MONTEMURO, TAMILIA, POPOVICH and JOHNSON, JJ.

DEL SOLE, Judge:

We consider an appeal from the judgment entered in Appellee's favor in a products liability action. Following the denial of post-trial motions and judgment, an appeal to this Court was filed in which a panel of this Court affirmed the trial court. We have granted reargument, however, for three principal reasons:

1. to clarify the role which "state of the art" evidence, including evidence of industry custom and federal safety standards, plays within the context of a strict liability action;

2. to re-examine the rule which prohibits hearsay statements appearing in learned treatises and other informational material from being admitted into evidence and used as substantial proof of the matters to which they relate; and,

3. to determine the admissibility of evidence of similar prior accidents to show constructive, post-sale notice of a defective product.

The underlying facts of this case are as follows. On April 20, 1978, Appellant-Henry Majdic (Majdic) was employed by National Standard Company. Majdic's duty on that date was to operate a power press which was designed, manufactured, and sold by Appellee-Cincinnati Machine Company (Cincinnati). The power press was utilized to perform various functions in conjunction with the punching, stamping, bending, or sheering of metal. In operating the press, Majdic hand fed sheet metal between the dyes attached to the ram and bed of press, which shaped and formed the metal. 1 The procedure entailed further steps which necessitated Majdic to reach into the machine to remove the work in process at least ten times. The power press, however, was not equipped with a guard to prevent an operator's hands from coming in contact with the point of operation. Likewise, no safety feature was attached to bar the operation of the press while the user's hands were between the ram and bed. No warning signs were posted on the machine advising of the danger involved in exposing one's hands to the point of operation.

On the date in question, the ram of the power press descended upon Majdic's right hand as he operated the machine. Thereafter, on April 8, 1980, Majdic and his wife, Ann, commenced an action against Cincinnati, the manufacturer of the power press, for the injuries he received from the accident. Three theories of recovery were asserted: negligence, breach of implied and expressed warranties, and strict liability. The action, however, was tried solely on the strict liability theory. By his complaint, Majdic contended that Cincinnati had manufactured and sold the press in a defective condition. This averment was based on the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 402A.

It was Majdic's position at trial that the power press was defectively designed inasmuch as it did not contain a guard which would have prevented the operator's hands from entering the point of operation. In addition, Majdic claimed that the machine was defective since it was not equipped with a mechanism to prevent operation of the press while the user's hands were in the pinchpoint. Further, the lack of a warning of the danger involved in placing one's hand in the work area was cited as a ground for the claim of defective design.

During the course of trial, Cincinnati did not dispute Majdic's allegation that the power press had not been equipped with guards and warnings discussed, supra. Rather, Cincinnati maintained that the press brake was a general purpose, multifunctional unit which was unequipped with dies and had no point of operation when sold. Thus, Cincinnati claimed that only Standard Machine Company, which incorporated the press brake into its manufacturing system, could determine and install the guards and warnings necessary for the particular function assigned to the press. (Appellant's Brief, 12). Cincinnati posited that, for this reason, the responsibility for providing the guards and warnings rested solely with Standard Machine Company, Majdic's employer. The verdict returned by jury was in Cincinnati's favor. Majdic filed a Motion for a New Trial which contained assignments of error allegedly committed by the trial court in its evidentiary rulings.

Before beginning an analysis of the evidentiary rulings involved, it is important that we remain mindful of the broad and sound social policy which underlies a seller's liability as established by the Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 402A. Section 402A provides:

(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.

The social policy sought to be effected by the implication of the seller's liability is very basic, very simple and very sound. As between an innocent user of a product and a manufacturer or seller who is engaged in the business of manufacturing or selling a product, risk of loss for injuries resulting from the use of a defective product shall be borne by the manufacturer and/or seller. Salvador v. Atlantic Boiler Co., 457 Pa. 24, 319 A.2d 903, 907 (1974). See: Webb v. Zern, 422 Pa. 424, 220 A.2d 853 (1966) (§ 402A adopted as the law of Pennsylvania).

With this guiding principle in mind, one can readily analyze the application of liability under § 402A. In a product liability case, principles of negligence have no place. Dambacher By Dambacher v. Mallis, 336 Pa.Super. 22, 27, 485 A.2d 408, 428 (1984). Liability does not focus upon a manufacturer's reasonableness in the design or manufacture of the product. Nor does it concern the manufacturer's use of "state of the art" concepts. Rather, liability rests where there is a defect in the product which caused injury to the user. Whether or not the defect was known or could have been anticipated at the time of the design or manufacture is of no concern. Id.

Section 402A does contain the term "unreasonably dangerous," which arguably introduces negligence concepts into products liability cases. However, our Supreme Court has explained that that term was included within § 402A "to foreclose any argument that the seller of a product with inherent possibilities for harm would become 'automatically responsible for all the harm that such things do in the world.' " Berkebile v. Brantly Helicopter Company, 462 Pa. 83, 337 A.2d 893, 900 (1975) (quoting Prosser, Strict Liability to the Consumer in California, 18 Hast.L.J. 9, 23 (1966)). Later, in Azzarello v. Black Brothers Co., Inc., 480 Pa. 547, 391 A.2d 1020 (1978), the term "unreasonably dangerous" was found to impose on the trial court the responsibility of determining "as a matter of law and by resolving considerations of 'social policy', whether 'the risk of loss should be placed upon the supplier.' " Dambacher, supra, at 485 A.2d at 426 (quoting Azzarello, supra, at 391 A.2d at 1025). We now consider the propriety of the evidentiary rulings challenged by Majdic on appeal.

I. "State of the Art" Evidence

We are mindful that questions concerning the admission and exclusion of evidence are vested within the trial court's discretion. Absent an abuse of that discretion, such rulings will not be reversed. Burch v. Sears, Roebuck and Co., 320 Pa.Super. 444, 467 A.2d 615, 621 (1983). In assessing the propriety of the trial court's actions, a fundamental consideration in determining the admissibility of evidence is its relevance. Evidence is relevant if it tends to make a fact at issue more or less probable. Martin v. Soblotney, 502 Pa. 418, 466 A.2d 1022, 1024 (1983).

Over Majdic's objection, Joseph L. Schwalje was permitted to testify concerning the custom in the industry in 1949 with respect to power press brakes. Cincinnati sold the press which injured Majdic to National Standard Machine in 1949. The witness testified that it was customary practice at that time for an employer or another party implementing the press brake into a metal forming system to provide the necessary safety devices. Further, Schwalje was permitted to refer to the 1973 American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Safety Standards for power presses to demonstrate that the standard in 1973 was the same as the trade custom prevalent in 1949.

At trial, Majdic argued that evidence of industry practices or trade customs was inadmissible in strict liability cases since it related to the reasonableness of a manufacturer's conduct. The trial court rejected this argument and found the testimony to be relevant as to whether the press brake was defective at the time it was sold to National Standard. The written 1973 ANSI reports were excluded from evidence; however, Schwalje was permitted to refer to them in order to determine the industry custom during 1949.

Recently, our Supreme Court in Lewis v. Coffing Hoist Division, Duff-Norton Co., Inc., 515 Pa. 334, 528 A.2d 590 (1987), considered the identical issue presented by Majdic--the admissibility of custom and usage as well as industry standards in a products liability case. In Lew...

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