Alert April 04, 2008

California Supreme Court Adopts Sophisticated User Defense

The California Supreme Court announced that it has adopted the “sophisticated user” defense in products liability and toxic tort actions. Johnson v. American Standard, Inc., slip op. S139184 (April 3, 2008). Agreeing with predictions made by prior federal circuit and district court decisions applying California law, the court unanimously affirmed a lower court judgment that 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.”  The court also confirmed that the sophisticated user doctrine may provide a complete defense to both strict liability and negligence claims.

Under California law, manufacturers may be held strictly liable for injuries caused by their failure to warn of dangers that were known to the scientific community at the time they manufactured or distributed their product. However, in states recognizing the sophisticated user doctrine, manufacturers need not warn sophisticated users about dangers of which the users are already aware or should have been aware.

Plaintiff in the Johnson case was a trained and certified heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) technician. He alleged that the maintenance and repairs he performed on air conditioning units exposed him to phosgene gas, causing him to develop pulmonary fibrosis. Plaintiff had obtained “universal” certification, the highest obtainable from EPA. He also admitted receiving and reading the Material Safety Data Sheets (“MSDS”) with each of his purchases of R-22 refrigerant, the alleged source of phosphene gas. Plaintiff claimed, however, that he did not understand from the MSDS that heating the R-22 refrigerant could produce allegedly harmful phosphene exposures. Plaintiff brought causes of action under theories of negligence, strict liability for failure to warn and strict liability for design defect.

The court affirmed the lower court grant of summary judgment, finding that the sophisticated user doctrine applied under California law and provided a complete defense to each of plaintiff’s claims. Recounting the history and evolution of the doctrine, the Johnson court reasoned that “the failure to provide warnings about risks already known to a sophisticated purchaser usually is not a proximate cause of harm resulting from those risks suffered by the buyer’s employees or downstream purchasers.”  The court also recognized that “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.’” Finally, the court noted that “manufacturers are not insurers for careless use of their products.” 

In defining the contours of the sophisticated user doctrine under California law, the Johnson court adopted an objective “should have known” standard, holding that a plaintiff’s claimed lack of actual knowledge is irrelevant, and that “it would be nearly impossible for a manufacturer to predict or determine whether a given user or member of the sophisticated group actually has knowledge of the dangers because of the infinite number of user idiosyncrasies.” Rather, the duty to warn is measured by what is generally known or should have been known to the class of sophisticated users and not by the individual plaintiff’s subjective knowledge. The court further held and explained that the sophisticated user defense applies equally to strict liability and negligent failure to warn cases. The court also made clear that the relevant time for determining user sophistication is at the time of plaintiff’s injury, rather than at the state of knowledge at the date that the product was manufactured.

The precise scope and contours of the sophisticated user defense will doubtless be tested and refined in future cases. For example, while the facts of the Johnson case involved a plaintiff who was both the purchaser of the product and the sophisticated user, the court also cited, seemingly approvingly, cases where the sophisticated user defense was applied to claims brought by plaintiffs who were the employees of the sophisticated user/purchaser. The Johnson court also expressly noted that it was not addressing and was reserving for future decision the issue of whether a plaintiff will be able to negate the application of the sophisticated user defense by showing that the sophisticated user’s misuse of the product was foreseeable. Nonetheless, the decision is significant for its adoption by a leading state’s high court of an important defense in product liability and toxic tort cases, which will not only affect the defense of future cases in California, but, potentially, other jurisdictions.