• California Adopts Sophisticated User Defense in Product Liability Actions
  • October 3, 2008 | Authors: E. Paul Dougherty; Alex Bruno
  • Law Firm: Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker LLP - Los Angeles Office
  • The "sophisticated user" doctrine is a defense that negates a manufacturer's duty to warn of a product's potential danger when the plaintiff, due to his or her expertise, has or should have advance knowledge of the product's inherent hazards. This affirmative defense of a "sophisticated user" was previously adopted by the federal courts in diversity cases and has been adopted by many state courts.

    In Johnson, supra, a HVAC technician contracted lung disease from inhaling a refrigerant while he was servicing refrigerant lines on an evaporator that was manufactured by American Standard. It was widely known by HVAC technicians that this refrigerant was highly toxic if exposed to extreme heat.
    Johnson sued American Standard, Inc alleging strict liability failure to warn and negligence, among other causes of action.  Plaintiff's theory was that defendant knew that servicing the evaporator would create a harmful gas, but defendant failed to provide plaintiff with an adequate warning.
    American Standard, Inc. moved for summary judgment.  One of the grounds was that it had no duty to warn about the risks of the refrigerant because it could assume that a group of trained professionals, of which plaintiff was a part, was aware of those risks.  The trial court granted defendant's motion for summary judgment and dismissed the matter.

    The trial court's decision was appealed and ultimately heard by the California Supreme Court.  The California Supreme Court endorsed the "sophisticated user" doctrine finding that the doctrine was a natural outgrowth of California's "obvious danger" rule, which renders that there is no duty to warn of obvious risks or dangers.  Id. 71-72
    The "sophisticated user" doctrine will negate a manufacturer's duty to warn when a person, because of her professional "expertise," should have already been aware of the warning sought.  In Johnson, supra, the Court clearly stated that whether plaintiff himself knew that the refrigerant was hazardous did not matter because the doctrine uses an objective standard.  Thus, the standard to utilize in the application of this doctrine is what is generally known by the specific class of users, not the individual bringing the action.
    Although the Johnson decision is about a HVAC technician, it is apparent that the decision will have a wider impact on a variety of California actions against manufacturers.  A manufacturer may not be liable for failure to warn of a product's danger or hazard when the person who used the product is part of a class of users who, by their expertise and sophistication, should have been aware of such potential dangers or hazards.  It is, therefore, important that one consider the use of the affirmative defense of "sophisticated user" in one's evaluation and defense of products liability and negligence matters in California state actions.