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The Sophisticated User Doctrine Changes the Liability Landscape

Date: 3/1/08

INTRODUCTION

The coffee cup says “Caution: Contents may be hot.” The ladder decal says “Danger: Do not stand on top platform. You may fall.” The baseball bat wrapper says “Warning: This bat should not be used for any purpose other than hitting a baseball.”

We tend to roll our eyes at such precautionary information. After all, who needs to be “warned” on such obvious hazards or potential misuses? While appropriate warnings are clearly necessary to put product users on notice of risks which are not open or obvious, the question of what hazards are “known or knowable” is often the critical dispute in product liability litigation.

In the law, negligence and strict liability cases involving alleged product defects routinely address the product manufacturer or distributor’s duty to warn, and whether certain precautionary information was either necessary or adequate under the circumstances.

A distinct defense in product liability actions involving warning defects is the “sophisticated user” doctrine. The doctrine applies where the end user possesses special knowledge, vocation, or expertise concerning the product and its risks, and accordingly, need not be warned of those risks. The sophisticated user doctrine and its cousin -- the "obvious danger" rule -- are well-established concepts in the majority of state and federal court jurisdictions throughout the United States. Thus far, the doctrine has been adopted in some form by each of the 28 states that has considered it.

On January 9, 2007, the California Supreme Court heard oral argument as to whether the doctrine should now be formally adopted in the Golden State [Johnson v. American Standard, Inc., Case No. B179206]. If, as expected, California embraces the doctrine, this will have an extraordinarily important impact on the ability of those entities in the commercial chain of distribution to successfully defend product liability lawsuits based on their warnings. This will be particularly true in the sporting goods industry, where athletic product manufacturers and distributors will be able to plead and prove that those allegedly injured by their products knew, or objectively should have known, of the specific risks associated with those products. Additionally, adoption of the doctrine would be expected to result in more accurate and on-point warnings, a fairer distribution of responsibility for injuries incurred by product misuse, and fewer lawsuits.

DUTY TO WARN DOCTRINES

The “obvious danger” rule eliminates liability for risks that are inherently known due to the nature of a product. The rationale behind the rule goes beyond not needing to forewarn users of blatant risks. Indeed, the characteristics of the product itself often project a more accurate warning than could a written label. Indeed, it is unlikely that those who claim ignorance of these obvious risks would take additional precautions because of a printed warning. Moreover, it is unfair to require reasonable individuals who engage in proper product use to subsidize careless users who drive up the cost of products. Courts also acknowledge the problem of “overwarning,” where “verbose, irrelevant false alarms” divert a user’s attention and cause them to tune out truly necessary warnings which “have the potential to motivate a change in the user’s safety-related behavior.” [Bowbeer & Killoran, Liriano v. Hobart Corp.: Obvious Dangers, the Duty to Warn of Safer Alternatives, and the Heeding Presumption (1999) 65 Brook. Law Rev. 526.]

These policies also ring true in the sophisticated user doctrine. It only makes sense that those who possess expansive knowledge about the use and experience with a product should be held to a higher standard of responsibility when the individual knows, or should know, of the product’s potential dangers. Though both the obvious danger rule and sophisticated user doctrine utilize an objective standard in determining whether an individual is charged with special knowledge of a product’s dangers, the sophisticated user doctrine specifically applies a higher standard to trained professionals who are, or should be, particularly aware of a product's characteristics. East Penn. Mfg. Co. v. Pineda (D.C. 1990) 578 A.2d 1113, 1120. Therefore, a court determines the general or common knowledge of a member of a person’s sophisticated group or profession when deciding whether a duty to warn exists.

A related concept is the “sophisticated purchaser” doctrine. This relieves a manufacturer of a duty to directly warn an ultimate user when the product is sold to a sophisticated and knowledgeable intermediate purchaser, and it is reasonable to rely on the intermediary to communicate necessary warnings to end users. For example, in Persons v. Salomon North America, Inc. (1990) 217 Cal.App.3d 168, the court held a ski-binding manufacturer had no duty to warn skiers of the potential danger of pairing its bindings with certain types of boots since it was reasonable to rely on its dealers to pass along the product warning to skiers and to provide independent warning of the dangers Id. at p. 178.

JOHNSON V. AMERICAN STANDARD, INC.

The California Supreme Court will now rule on formal adoption of the sophisticated user doctrine in the Johnson case. Plaintiff William Johnson is a trained, and certified heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning technician who claimed he should have been warned by HVAC equipment and refridgerant manufacturers about the hazards of noxious gas being released when heat is applied to commercial air conditioning units during brazing (welding) repairs. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of an air conditioning unit manufacturer, American Standard, Inc., and the California Court of Appeal subsequently affirmed the ruling that no warnings were required because certified HVAC technicians knows, or are presumed to know, of this particular hazard in their profession. Johnson v. American Standard, Inc. (2006) 133 Cal.App.4th 496. The case has caught the attention of the nation’s leading manufacturers, insurers, and trade associations which will be affected by the Supreme Court’s ruling. Indeed, Johnson’s effects will be widespread in many sectors of commerce and litigation.


 

Article By:
Kevin C. Mayer, Partner
Liner Grode Stein Yankelevitz Sunshine Regenstreif & Taylor LLP
kmayer@linerlaw.com

Article By:
Emily Ayers, Associate
Liner Grode Stein Yankelevitz Sunshine Regenstreif & Taylor LLP
ecatlin@linerlaw.com

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