February 14, 2006

California Adopts the “Sophisticated User” Doctrine

Holland & Knight Newsletter
Robert E. Tonn

In Johnson v. American Standard, Inc. LEXIS 1615 (Cal. App. 2005), California’s Second District Court of Appeal (located in Los Angeles) affirmed summary judgment in favor of American Standard – finding that the air conditioning equipment manufacturer had no duty to warn an experienced user of its products about dangers that should reasonably have been known to that user. Notably, the decision is the first in California to expressly recognize the so-called “sophisticated user” doctrine – a legal principle that has long been widely accepted in many jurisdictions.

William Johnson was a trained, EPA-certified HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) technician who allegedly was injured when he inhaled phosgene gases created while he was brazing refrigerant lines on a commercial air conditioning unit manufactured by the defendant. Johnson sued American Standard under theories of negligence, strict liability for failure to warn and strict liability for design defect under the consumer expectations test as adopted by the California courts. In each cause of action, Johnson alleged that American Standard knew that harmful gases, and phosgene in particular, would be created when its product was serviced, but failed to provide an adequate warning of that hazard. In response, American Standard presented evidence that it was common knowledge within the industry that potentially hazardous gases are created when certain refrigerants are exposed to a heat source. In fact, likely for this very reason, EPA regulations require that technicians evacuate refrigerant from a system before brazing.

In affirming summary judgment in favor of American Standard, the appellate court concluded that the evidence presented established that a tradesperson in Johnson’s position “could reasonably be expected to know” of the hazards associated with brazing refrigerant lines. Johnson’s evidence to the contrary – essentially limited to testimony that he and others did not personally know of the danger – did not, in the Court’s opinion, create a triable issue of fact. Instead, the Court’s decision turned on whether Johnson should have known of the potential hazard and whether it was reasonable for American Standard to expect that Johnson knew.

Like other courts that have adopted the sophisticated user doctrine, the Johnson Court relied on section 388 of the Restatement of Torts for the proposition that suppliers of products can be liable to users of those products “if the supplier (a) knows or has reason to know that the [product] is or is likely to be dangerous for the use for which it is supplied, and (b) has no reason to believe that those for whose use the [product] is supplied will realize its dangerous condition … “ (emphasis added). Comment k to subsection (b) explains that “One who supplies a [product] to others to use for any purpose is under a duty to exercise reasonable care to inform them of its dangerous character … if, but only if, he has no reason to expect that those for whose use the [product] is supplied will discover its condition and realize the danger involved.” Thus, the Johnson Court concluded that subsection (b) could fairly be interpreted to mean “there is no duty to warn if the user knows or should know of the potential danger, especially when the user is a professional who should be aware of the characteristics of the product.” In other words, a manufacturer must only warn of dangers not commonly known.

Because the Court reasoned that adoption of the sophisticated user doctrine is a natural extension of the widely recognized proposition that there is no duty to warn of known risks (such as the dangers of alcohol and sling shots), it stands to reason that the Court intended for the doctrine to be applied broadly. While there is no clear-cut guidance in the opinion as to the product types or industries where the doctrine will be applicable, it is worth noting that the Johnson Court cited to, and implicitly endorsed, a number of cases from around the country involving products as diverse as exercise equipment, chemicals and dynamite. For example, in a federal court decision applying Nebraska law, a manufacturer of natural gas pipe and pipe connectors was not liable for failing to warn employees of a natural gas utility about the well known dangers of gas lines. See Strong v. E.I. DuPont de Nemours Co., Inc., 667 F.2d 682 (8th Cir. 1981). Similarly, a scaffolding manufacturer had no duty to give a professional painter safe rigging instructions, in a case applying Michigan law. See Antcliff v. State Employees Credit Union, 327 N.W.2d 814 (Mich. 1982). Considering the diverse application of the sophisticated user doctrine in the cited case law, this defense should now be considered any time a failure to warn claim is brought in California by an apparently experienced user of a defendant’s product.

Using the same analysis, the extension of the doctrine could arguably be applicable in the mass tort class action context as well. Because the doctrine will bar failure to warn claims brought by sophisticated users, the differences in knowledge and expertise of individual class members should necessarily be an area of inquiry during class certification. If a defendant manufacturer is able to highlight significant differences in the knowledge base of the class members, a court might conclude that individual issues outweigh common ones and that the class members are not similarly situated, making a class action inappropriate.

Only time will tell how broadly the sophisticated user doctrine will ultimately be applied in California. For while this is an interesting and potentially beneficial decision for product manufacturers, it remains to be seen whether other California appellate districts or the California Supreme Court will adopt similar reasoning. In any event, the expansion of this defense seems to make sense since the specialized knowledge of end users is a factor which should be taken into account in determining liability.

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