PA Supreme Court’s impactful ruling on product defect injuries


Professional joiner standing at workshop and manufacturing furniture for sale

By: Michelle Yee

In Sullivan v. Werner Co., 2021 PA Super 66, 253 A.3d 730 (2021), aff’d, 306 A.3d 846 (Pa. 2023), Michael Sullivan, a carpenter, and his wife, Melissa Sullivan, brought a strict products liability action against Wener Company and Lowe’s Companies, Inc. after Michael Sullivan fell through a scaffold made by Werner Company and sold by Lowe’s Companies while working. He suffered lumbar vertebrae and sacrum injuries. At trial, the Judge granted Mr. Sullivan’s motion in limine to bar admission of government or industry standards evidence at trial and denied the manufacturer’s motions to limit expert testimony. A jury determined that a design defect caused the accident and awarded Sullivan $2.5 million in damages.

Werner Company appealed the decision to the Superior Court and argued that the trial court erred (1) in its decision to exclude evidence that the scaffold complied with government and industry standards, and (2) by instructing the jury that it could not consider any negligence of Mr. Sullivan. For decades, the Supreme Court created a distinct divide between strict liability and negligence claims by suggesting that negligence concepts have no place in Pennsylvania strict liability doctrine. However, the decision in Tincher v. Omega Flex, Inc., 628 Pa. 296, 104 A.3d 328 (2014) changed strict liability law, and Werner Company argued that reasonableness or foreseeability may considered in aspects of liability such as negligence-derived defenses, bystander compensation, or the proper application of the intended use doctrine. The Superior Court disagreed with Werner Company’s argument and found that Tincher was not enough to disregard the Lewis/Gaudio evidentiary rule that says that a product’s compliance with government standards is irrelevant and inadmissible in a strict products liability action. Furthermore, the Superior Court held that evidence of a plaintiff’s ordinary negligence may not be admitted in a strict products liability action unless it is shown that the accident was solely the result of the user’s conduct and not related to the alleged defect in the product. In other words, a user’s negligence is not relevant if the product defect contributed to the harm. As such, the Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s decision.  

This matter was appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court by Werner Company, again arguing that they should have been allowed to present evidence that the scaffold complied with industry and governmental safety standards under Tincher. The Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s decision ruling that such compliance evidence remained inadmissible in products liability cases because such evidence goes to the reasonableness of the manufacturer’s conduct in making its design choices, not whether or not the product was defectively designed.    

Under the current decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s decision to preclude evidence of industry standards and the Plaintiff’s negligence. This decision will provide guidance for future lawsuits involving people injured by defective products. 

For more information contact Michelle Yee at or your local FMG attorney.