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California Supreme Court Adopts “Sophisticated User” Defense in Failure to Warn Claims

Beveridge & Diamond, P.C., April 7, 2008

In a case of first impression, the Supreme Court of California (the “Court”) unanimously adopted the “sophisticated user” doctrine, which acts as an exception to a manufacturer’s general duty to warn consumers when a plaintiff has or should have knowledge of a product’s inherent hazards.  Johnson v. American Standard, Inc., No. S139184 (April 3, 2008).  Agreeing with the reasoning of the appellate court below, the Court held that the sophisticated user defense should apply in the case to defeat “all causes of action for defendant’s alleged failure to warn,” including both strict liability and negligence.  Slip Op. at 20. 

As part of its opinion, the Court discussed three key parameters for application of the sophisticated user defense in California.  First, with regard to the constructive “should have known” standard, the Court reasoned that although “there will be some users who were actually unaware of the dangers” or who do not actually possess the requisite sophisticated knowledge and skill, knowledge will be attributed to “individuals who represent that they are trained or are members of a sophisticated group of users [because they] are saying to the world that they possess the level of knowledge and skill associated with that class.”  Id. at 16.  Second, despite the decision of other states to recognize the sophisticated user doctrine only for negligence cases, the Court concluded that the doctrine would apply as a defense to both negligent failure to warn and strict liability for failure to warn causes of action in part because, unlike defective design claims, “failure to warn claims involve some consideration of the defendant’s conduct” and “relate[] to a failure extraneous to the product itself.”  Id. at 19; see also id. at 18 (citing Restatement Second of Torts, § 402A, cmt. j, p. 353, which addresses strict liability).  Finally, the Court indicated that the relevant time for determining user sophistication and accompanying knowledge “is measured from the time of the plaintiff’s injury, rather than from the date the product was manufactured.”  Id. at 20.

Although no California court had adopted the sophisticated user doctrine previously, the Court noted that dictum in an appellate court decision,  Fierro v. Int’l Harvester Co., 127 Cal. App. 3d 862 (Cal. Ct. App. 1982), addressed the defense by stating that a “sophisticated organization like [the plaintiff] does not have to be told that gasoline is volatile and that sparks from an electrical connection or friction can cause ignition.”  Slip Op. at 12 (quoting Fierro, 127 Cal. App. 3d at 866).  “The Court of Appeal impliedly adopted the sophisticated user defense in rationalizing its affirmance of the trial court’s judgment.”  Id. at 12.  The Court also noted that numerous federal courts had cited Fierro as evidence that “the highest court in California would permit the defense.”  Id. at 13.

The Court’s rationale supporting the sophisticated user doctrine was based on the notion that a “user’s knowledge of the dangers is the equivalent of prior notice.”  Id. at 8 (citations omitted).  “[T]he sophisticated user defense evolved out of the Restatement Second of Torts, section 388 . . . and the obvious danger rule, [which are both] accepted principle[s] and defense[s] in California.”  Id. at 8 (citations omitted).  The Court also cited public policy as part of the rationale for the ruling, noting that “[r]equiring manufacturers to warn their products’ users in all instances would place an onerous burden on them and would ‘invite mass consumer disregard and ultimate contempt for the warning process.’”  Id. at 15 (citations omitted). 

The plaintiff, a trained and certified heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (“HVAC”) technician, alleged harm from exposure to a gas known as phosphene.  R-22, a hydrochlorofluorocarbon refrigerant commonly used in air conditioning systems, is capable of decomposing into phosphene gas when exposed to flame or high heat -- a common occurrence when a technician is joining together air conditioner pipes.  “[M]anufacturers and HVAC technicians have generally known of the dangers [of phosphene exposure] since as early as 1931,” and [t]he dangers and risks associated with R-22 are noted on Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs).”  Id. at 2 (citing Cal. Code Regs., tit. 8, § 5194, subd. (g)(1), (2)).  The Court rejected the plaintiff’s claim that “he had read the MSDS for R-22 but did not understand that he should avoid heating R-22” because the plaintiff’s training and certification as well as the study guides and MSDS for R-22 indicated that the plaintiff should have known of the harm associated with exposure to phosphene.  Id. at 20-21.  Accordingly, the Court affirmed the appellate court’s decision that summary judgment was properly granted to the defendant.

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For more information, contact Dan Krainin at (212) 702-5417 / dkrainin@bdlaw.com, Lily Chinn at (202) 789-6044 / lchinn@bdlaw.com or Patrick Jacobi at (202) 789-6064 / pjacobi@bdlaw.com.