Pennsylvania: Product Liability―Defense Verdict in Lehigh County

12/14/17

Thomas and Rosenia Devine v. Pride Mobility Products Corporation and Mobility Unlimited, Inc., CCP Lehigh County, C.A. No. 2013-C-4299

On October 30, 2017, after just over 30 minutes of deliberations, a Lehigh County, Pennsylvania jury of 12 returned a unanimous verdict in favor of Rawle & Henderson LLP’s client, Pride Mobility, following five days of trial in Thomas and Rosenia Devine v. Pride Mobility Products. Brett Wolfson, a partner in Rawle & Henderson’s Philadelphia office, led the defense in this products liability action.

This case involved a claim that a power wheelchair designed and manufactured by Pride was defective and led to plaintiff Thomas Devine’s injury. Pride Mobility designs and manufactures power wheelchairs that allow persons with disabilities to regain mobility.

Plaintiff alleged that a broken bolt discovered after the accident caused the wheelchair to tilt in the direction he claimed he was thrown, as he was descending a ramp from his home to his garage. The accident left plaintiff with a broken leg requiring surgery and permanent implantation of metal plates and 12 screws to support the broken bone.

Rawle & Henderson LLP’s defense strategy focused on (1) extreme abuse of the chair, causing the subject bolt to break, (2) excessive height/incline of the ramp, (3) plaintiff riding his chair at an excessive speed, and (4) plaintiff not wearing the lap belt that was originally installed on the chair.

We executed the defenses through cross-examination of plaintiff and his wife, supported by testimony of experts in biomechanical engineering and metallurgy. Through laboratory testing, plaintiffs’ expert as well as the defense metallurgist testified that the subject broken bolt met all ASTM hardness standards, in accordance with the stringent design specifications of Pride Mobility. Plaintiff offered no evidence or explanation how or why the bolt broke.

Brett’s metallurgist expert testified that an extreme traumatic event was the only explanation as to how such a strong bolt could have broken. This included showing the jury photographs of a bent frame found beneath the seat of the chair, taken six months after the accident by a Pride Mobility engineer. Neither plaintiff nor his wife provided any explanation as to how such damage occurred to the chair.

With respect to the ramp from which plaintiff fell, the user’s manual specified that if the ramp was positioned as high as it was installed in plaintiff’s home, it was intended to transport only unoccupied wheelchairs. Thus, plaintiff should not have been riding the wheelchair down the ramp at the time of his accident. Even if the ramp was at a lower height and angle, the manual required a “qualified assistant” to push the ramp user while seated in the wheelchair. All of this was to prevent exactly what occurred to plaintiff.

Plaintiff testified that when descending the ramp, he always operated the chair at its slowest possible setting, 0.1MPH. He also testified that, to keep from sliding out of the chair, he always tilted/reclined the seat before descending the ramp. During cross-examination, over the objection by plaintiff’s counsel, we asked plaintiff to demonstrate this for the jury. This was the first step in discrediting plaintiff’s rendition of the accident. Pride’s engineer, at Brett’s our direction, had an exemplar platform constructed in order to further demonstrate that plaintiff’s version of the facts were impossible.

Additionally, a lap belt originally installed on the chair was designed to keep plaintiff restrained and prevent him from falling out of the chair. Not only did plaintiff admit to failing to wear the lap belt, he also deliberately removed the lap belt from the chair shortly after he originally purchased the chair two years before the accident.

Ironically, at the time of trial, plaintiff was sitting in his newly purchased power chair, also designed and manufactured by Pride Mobility, the company that designed the wheelchair that plaintiff alleged was defective and caused his accident. Plaintiff sat through trial in his new chair, now wearing the chair’s lap belt. Plaintiff testified on direct that he now wears the lap belt because his wife insists. When pressed on cross-examination, plaintiff conceded that his wife’s insistence on him wearing the lap belt was “because she wanted him to be safe.” His wife admitted on cross-examination that the belt would prevent him from sliding out of the chair if riding down the ramp at too fast a speed.
  
The jury concluded that plaintiff’s accident was caused by his riding his power wheelchair too fast, without the seat tilted back, without wearing the lap belt, down a ramp that was too high and not intended for occupied wheelchairs.