Alerts and Updates

California Adopts "Sophisticated User" Defense

April 7, 2008

On April 3, 2008, the California Supreme Court unanimously held that the "sophisticated user" defense applies in California to both negligence and strict liability causes of action. Under the sophisticated user defense, "[a] manufacturer is not liable to a sophisticated user of its product for failure to warn of a risk, harm, or danger, if the sophisticated user knew or should have known of that risk, harm, or danger." (Johnson v. American Standard, CA Supreme Court No. S139184.) Because sophisticated users are charged with knowing the particular product's dangers, the failure to warn about those dangers is not the legal cause of any harm that product may cause.

In the case, plaintiff William Johnson alleged he developed pulmonary fibrosis due to exposure to phosgene gas released from a refrigerant, R-22, while he was working on an air conditioning system. Johnson was a trained and certified heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) technician. Defendant American Standard, Inc. manufactured the evaporator that contained the refrigerant. Plaintiff alleged that Defendant knew that servicing the evaporator would expose Plaintiff to harmful phosgene gas, but Defendant failed to provide Plaintiff with an adequate warning. Defendant moved for summary judgment on several grounds, one of which was the absence of a duty to warn because (1) the danger was one generally known to members of the profession and (2) Plaintiff, a trained HVAC technician, could have been expected to know of that risk. The trial court granted Defendant's motion and entered judgment in its favor. The Court of Appeal affirmed, holding that the sophisticated user defense applies in California.

On review, the California Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeal, explaining that the sophisticated user defense, as adopted in many other jurisdictions, evolved out of Section 388 of the Restatement of Torts and the obvious danger rule, which is an accepted principle and defense in California. Under the obvious danger rule, a manufacturer need not warn ordinary consumers about generally known dangers. Examples of products posing obvious dangers include slingshots and pellet guns. It follows, the Court explained, that just as a manufacturer need not warn ordinary customers about generally known dangers, a manufacturer need not warn members of a trade or profession (sophisticated users) about dangers generally known to that trade or profession. "Requiring 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.'"

The Court emphasized that the sophisticated user defense uses a "should have known" standard. The focus is therefore on the general population of sophisticated users, and the defense will eliminate the duty to warn when the expected user population is generally aware of the risk at issue, even if the particular user was actually unaware of the dangers. The Court reasoned that the obvious danger rule is also an objective test and that even if a user was truly unaware of a product's hazards, the fact is irrelevant if the danger was objectively obvious. It further held that the sophisticated user defense is applicable to both negligence and strict liability causes of action. Finally, the Court held that the sophisticated user's knowledge of the risk is measured from the time of the plaintiff's injury, rather than from the date the product was manufactured.

Duane Morris attorneys Paul Killion and Kathryn Schultz, of the San Francisco office, and Rob Byer, of the Pittsburgh office, filed an amicus curiae brief on behalf of FLSmidth, Inc. The attorneys are all members of Duane Morris' Appellate Practice Group.

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