Volume 85, No. 3, Spring 2013

The Fair Share Act: Analyzing Its Impact on Major Automobile Manufacturers, Plaintiffs, and the Courts Themselves in Pennsylvania Crashworthiness Cases

Since 1994, Pennsylvania courts have explicitly permitted recovery under the crashworthiness doctrine, which is a subset of a cause of action for products liability. The crashworthiness doctrine provides that a manufacturer is liable in “situations in which the defect did not cause the accident or initial impact, but rather increased the severity of the injury over that which would have occurred absent the defective design.” The Pennsylvania Supreme Court continually and steadfastly refused to allow crashworthiness actions to become contaminated by negligence principles, and joint and several liability rules applied when the actions of multiple defendants combined to cause an indivisible injury.

With the adoption of the Fair Share Act, however, joint and several liability no longer applies in cases where a defendant is less than sixty percent liable for the damages. Furthermore, because the Fair Share Act specifically permits fault to be apportioned in strict liability actions, Pennsylvania courts will have to reconcile the new law with both crashworthiness doctrine and comparative liability. This Comment will argue that in order to do so, courts should dispense with the current Fox-Mitchell approach to the burden of proof in crashworthiness actions and fashion a new approach based on apportionment of fault.

Parts II.A and II.B discuss the history of products liability actions in Pennsylvania, in particular, three Pennsylvania Supreme Court cases that drastically changed consumers’ ability to hold manufacturers liable for product defects. Additionally, Part II.B notes the development of the crashworthiness doctrine generally and its applicability to Pennsylvania products liability cases.

Part II.C examines the interaction of joint and several liability with comparative negligence principles and explains the difficulty courts have found in reconciling the two doctrines. This Comment then discusses the competing approaches that have developed in the courts concerning the burden of proof that must be met in order to prevail on a crashworthiness theory: the Huddell-Caiazzo approach and the Fox-Mitchell approach. An in-depth discussion of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court case Harsh v. Petroll follows, which articulated Pennsylvania’s approach to liability in crashworthiness cases. Part II.C culminates with an overview of the Fair Share Act, adopted in 2011, which calls for the apportionment of liability in all cases, including actions for strict liability.

Part III.A examines potential problems Pennsylvania courts may face in reconciling the crashworthiness doctrine and comparative liability. This Comment argues that Pennsylvania courts should reject both the Huddell-Caiazzo approach and the Fox-Mitchell approach and instead require that juries apportion fault between parties in every case. Part III.B discusses the shifting incentives that major automobile manufacturers will face in crashworthiness actions, including the effect that the new Act will have on their approach to defending these cases. Finally, Part III.C considers the likely significance of the Act on the size of plaintiffs’ recoveries. This Comment will thus analyze the impact of the Fair Share Act on Pennsylvania courts, the liability of major automobile manufacturers, and the recoveries awarded to plaintiffs injured by morally culpable initial tortfeasors in crashworthiness causes of action.

Read Comment …