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Helmet Found Not Defective Because it Complied with Standards – Are We Heading Away from Strict Liability in Product Design Defect Cases and Towards a Negligence Standard?

On Tuesday, July 12, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals (“Third Circuit”) issued an important decision in the area of products liability law.

In Covell v. Bell Sports, Inc., the Third Circuit upheld the decision of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (“District Court”) that §§ 1 and 2 of Restatement (Third) of Torts (1998) (“3rd Restatement”), not § 402A of Restatement (Second) of Torts (1965) (“2nd Restatement”), would govern defect determinations in products liability suits under Pennsylvania law. David Covell sustained serious brain injuries when he was struck by a car while bicycling. The plaintiffs, Covell’s parents, filed suit alleging that the Bell helmet worn during the collision was defective. At trial, the District Court instructed the jury under the 3rd Restatement and the jury returned a defense verdict. On appeal, the plaintiffs claimed the District Court erred by (i) permitting Bell to introduce evidence based in part on the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Safety Standards for Bicycle Helmets (“Helmet Standards”), and (ii) instructing the jury that it may consider evidence of compliance with the Helmet Standards in its deliberations of whether the Bell helmet was defective.

One of the most controversial issues in products liability law is the manner in which design defects should be defined. The 2nd Restatement applies a strict liability standard that defines defective products as unreasonably dangerous if the product fails to meet the expectations of consumers. The 3rd Restatement, by contrast, defines a product design as defective when the foreseeable risks of harm from using the product could have been avoided if the manufacturer had used a reasonable alternative design. In order to make defect determinations under the 3rd Restatement, consideration of traditional negligence concepts, such as foreseeable risk and reasonable care, is specifically contemplated. In essence, the 3rd Restatement changes the law from a regime of strict liability to one of negligence. Most jurisdictions have not adopted the 3rd Restatement.

In Covell, the District Court admitted expert testimony that Bell's helmet satisfied the Helmet Standards in all respects and instructed the jury that it could consider compliance with the Helmet Standards as a standard or custom in the bicycle helmet industry in its defect determination under the 3rd Restatement. The Third Circuit held that the District Court properly admitted such evidence because it was relevant to the amount of care that Bell exercised and appropriately instructed the jury to follow the 3rd Restatement to determine if Bell’s helmet was defective.

This case is important because it provides a clear statement as to the kind of evidence that will be permitted in jurisdictions that adopt or may adopt the 3rd Restatement. Had the District Court applied the 2nd Restatement and its strict liability regime, any evidence of compliance with the Helmet Standards would have been rendered irrelevant and therefore inadmissible. And even if it were admissible, the jury could not have been properly instructed to consider it, since defect determinations under that regime do not permit it.

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