United States: It Should Be Obvious – An Azzarello Jury Charge Is Reversible Error In Pennsylvania After Tincher

Last Updated: February 20 2018
Article by James Beck

If you're not interested in Pennsylvania product liability law at the moment, come back tomorrow. This particular post is not limited to (or even primarily about) prescription medical products.

Back in 2014 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court worked a revolution in product liability when it decided Tincher v. Omega Flex, Inc., 104 A.3d 328 (Pa. 2014) ("Tincher I"). We blogged about Tincher I here and here, and discussed its prescription medical product implications (or lack of same) here and here.

We detailed in our first post the harsh criticism that Tincher I directed against the strict liability jury instruction (from a case called Azzarello) that had previously been the law. Here is some flavor from that post – there's lots more where that came from.

After all that preface, Tincher overruled Azzarello. "Azzarello articulates governing legal concepts which fail to reflect the realities of strict liability practice and to serve the interests of justice." Slip op. at 74. It got rid of Azzarello's relegation of the "unreasonably dangerous" prong of §402A to a preliminary question of law to be decided courts rather than juries. It criticized Azzarello for "approv[ing], and thereby essentially requir[ing], instructions which informed the jury that, for the purposes of a supplier's strict liability in tort, 'the product must, therefore, be provided with every element necessary to make it safe for its intended use'." Id. at 75. "Subsequent decisional law has applied Azzarello broadly, to the point of directing that negligence concepts have no place in Pennsylvania strict liability doctrine." Id. These errors, Tincher went on to explain, "led to puzzling trial directives that the bench and bar understandably have had difficulty following in practice, including in the present matter." Id.

Thus, Tincher disapproves of three key aspects of prior Pennsylvania strict liability law: (1) the "each and every element"/"guarantor" jury instruction; (2) taking "unreasonably dangerous" issues away from the jury and giving them to courts; and (3) the strict separation of negligence and strict liability concepts.

Thus, one thing that we always considered self-evident is that, after Tincher I, the Azzarello jury instruction – the one with the "any element" defect test and the "defendant as guarantor" of product safety language – was reversible error.

However, others seemed to have much more trouble with this self-evident proposition than we did. Because Tincher I did not reverse outright, but simply remanded for further proceedings, the plaintiffs' side tried to throw smoke that maybe the Azzarello instruction was still OK (or at least not reversible error). A couple of foolish, but fortunately uncitable, Superior Court memorandum decisions seemed to agree, at least in crashworthiness cases. See American Honda Motor Co. v. Martinez, 2017 WL 1400968, at *4 (Pa. Super. April 19, 2017); Cancelleri v. Ford Motor Co., 2016 WL 82449, at *2 (Pa. Super. Jan. 7, 2016). Even more foolishly, a post-Tincher I update to the Pennsylvania Suggested Standard Jury Instructions, retained the Azzarello "any element" defect test, while omitting the "unreasonably dangerous" element of strict liability that Tincher I reaffirmed as part of Pennsylvania law. See Pa. SSJI (Civ.) §16.20(1). At that point, this continuing denial of the obvious became too much for Pennsylvania defense practitioners to suffer in silence any longer. Thus, last year the Pennsylvania Defense Institute, later joined by the Philadelphia Association of Defense Counsel, issued their own competing product liability suggested jury instructions. Anyway, these plaintiff-side attempts to deny the obvious are now at an end.

As we mentioned, Tincher I remanded for further proceedings concerning the relief to which the defendant was entitled. On remand, the trial judge also tried to deny the obvious, and denied any relief at all, finding the Azzarello instruction to be, at most, harmless error even after Tincher I. But yesterday the Superior Court unanimously reversed that holding in a published opinion. See Tincher v. Omega Flex, Inc., ___ A.3d ___, No. 1285 EDA 2016 (Pa. Super. Feb. 16, 2018) (per Lazarus, J., with Platt, and Strassburger, JJ., joining) ("Tincher II").

Here are the highlights. Tincher II held that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court meant what it said in Tincher I, so that a court commits "fundamental error" if it uses an Azzarello jury charge in a strict case. Tincher II, slip op. at 23. What language was fundamental error? This language:

The charge [that was given] contained all of the product liability law under Azzarello that the Supreme Court has now disapproved, including a definition equating a defective product with one that "leaves the suppliers' control lacking any element necessary to make it safe for its intended use," and a declaration that a manufacturer "is really a guarantor of [a product's] safety" but not "an insurer of [that] safety."

Id. at 18. Tincher II did not consider this to be a difficult ruling. "There is no question" that the Azzarello charge given during the trial was "incorrect." Id. Indeed, as "the trial court gave a charge under law that the Supreme Court has explicitly overruled in this very case. Such a charge would appear to be a paradigm example of fundamental error." Id. at 23 (emphasis added). Likewise, on page 20 of the Tincher II slip opinion: an Azzarello charge "fail[s] to conform to the applicable law, as stated in Tincher" and thus is "fundamental error."

There's lots more where that came from:

  • "If an incorrect definition of 'defect' under Azzarello calls for a new trial, an incorrect definition of 'defect' under Tincher should call for the same result." Tincher II, slip op. at 22-23.
  • "There is no question that the error was fundamental to the case. It dealt with the principal issue disputed by the parties − whether there was a defect." Id. at 25.
  • "[T]hat the jury may have heard evidence about risk and utility during the trial does not mean that it rendered a verdict based on the risk/utility standard adopted by the Supreme Court as one way to find a product defective. In fact, the verdict could not mean that, because the jury was never instructed to make findings under such a standard. Rather than being asked to balance risks and utilities, the jury was told only to find whether [product] "lacked any element necessary to make it safe" − regardless of whatever reasonable risk/utility considerations might have gone into the decision to market [product] without such an element." Id. at.26.
  • "[T]he trial court had no authority to deny a new trial on the basis of its own speculation about what the jury would do under the Supreme Court's new formulation of the law." Id. at.27.
  • "The trial court's declaration that the new legal reformulation resulting from the Supreme Court's thorough and extensive decision . . . can cause no change to the verdict undervalues the importance of the Supreme Court's decision." Id. at 27 (emphasis added).
  • "The Supreme Court said nothing in Tincher[I] to suggest that mere proof of a 'defect' under post-Azzarello strict liability law would be sufficient to prove an "unreasonably dangerous defective condition" under Tincher[I]'s new formulation." Id. at 28.
  • "[T]he Supreme Court's statement that the 'question of whether a party has met its burden of proof' may properly be removed from a jury's consideration" . . . was referring only to a trial court's ability to decide 'a dispositive motion.'" Id. at 29.

Thus, in a precedential opinion, Tincher II has at last answered the obvious question. Yes, after Tincher I, charging a §402A strict liability jury in Pennsylvania with the old Azzarello "any element"/"guarantor" language is "disapproved," "incorrect," "fundamental error," and in and of itself requires a new trial. Go forth and sin no more.

This article is presented for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute legal advice.

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