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Pennsylvania Superior Court Reverses Dismissal of a Products Liability Suit By Man Wearing Safety Harness Backwards

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has reversed the grant of summary judgment in favor of a defendant in a products liability suit brought by a plaintiff who fell 35 feet from a tree while wearing a safety harness backward.

In Pennsylvania, product misuse and highly-reckless conduct are affirmative defenses that could serve to defeat a strict products liability claim under Section 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts.  To establish misuse, the defendant must show that the use was "unforeseeable or outrageous."  Similarly, highly-reckless conduct requires the defendant to prove either that the plaintiff would have been injured even if the alleged defects had been cured or that the use of the product was so extraordinary and unforeseeable that it constitutes a superseding cause. 

In Zimmerman v. Alexander Andrew, Inc. d/b/a FallTech, No. 662 WDA 2017 (June 1, 2018), the plaintiff, James Zimmerman went to a friend’s house to cut down a tree.  When he arrived, his friend gave him a FallTech safety harness to use.  Neither the plaintiff nor his friend had used the harness before.  The harness’s packaging included written instructions indicating that the safety ring on the back was for fall arrest and that the side safety rings were for work positioning only and not to be used for fall arrest.  However, Zimmerman did not read the instructions thoroughly, only scanning to confirm the weight restrictions.  There was also a warning label on the harness itself, which Zimmerman saw but also did not read.  Rather, Zimmerman, relying on his “limited personal experience using a harness in construction work and seeing them used on television programs featuring people cutting trees, thought the use of the harness was self-explanatory.”

Nevertheless, Zimmerman put the harness on backward with the back safety ring positioned on his chest.  After climbing the tree, he used safety rings on the sides of the harness to bear his weight, rather than anchoring himself to a point above his head from the safety ring that was supposed to be on his back as set forth in the instructions.  When Zimmerman attempted to change position during a wind gust, he caused the harness to bear his full weight.  The harness failed when the side safety ring ripped away from the harness and he fell 35 feet to the ground suffering a collapsed lung and several fractured bones, which required the amputation of his right leg below the knee.

Zimmerman then brought suit against the harness manufacturer, FallTech, alleging claims of strict products liability, negligence and breach of the implied warranty of merchantability.  Regarding the products liability claim, specifically, Zimmerman contended that the harness was designed and manufactured with weak and faulty component parts making it unreasonably dangerous, that it had inadequate warnings regarding the use of the harness and hazards associated with its proper use, and that it was not stable enough for routine and regular use.   FallTech moved for summary judgment contending that the harness was intended for use on construction projects by workers trained in how to use it and that Zimmerman’s use was an unintended and unforeseeable misuse of the product. 

Following oral argument, the trial court granted summary judgment and dismissed all claims stating "[t]here is absolutely nothing that would make a manufacturer think that" someone would use the product as Mr. Zimmerman did, and "it would be a waste of time to take this to a jury." However, this decision was reversed by a unanimous three-judge panel of the Pennsylvania Superior Court and remanded back to the trial court for further proceedings.

In its opinion, the Superior Court stated that the trial court overlooked evidence that indicated the instructions were unclear and could show there were other factors that led to the plaintiff’s fall, even though Zimmerman admittedly did not read the instructions or warning label and clearly misused the harness.  The Court further explained that “it was error for the trial court to rule, on the record before it, that Mr. Zimmerman’s misuse of the harness ‘solely caused the accident while the design defect did not contribute to it’” and determined that Zimmerman produced enough evidence to submit the case to the jury.

For more information, please contact Jason Kopena at jakopena@zarwin.com


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