Friday, April 4, 2008
Supreme Court Unanimously Adopts ‘Sophisticated User’ Doctrine
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
Sophisticated users of products cannot hold manufacturers liable for failing to warn of risks those users should have recognized, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
Unanimously concluding that the “sophisticated user” doctrine applies in California, the court ruled that a certified heating, ventilation, and air conditioning technician who alleged that he was injured when an evaporator unit he was servicing released toxic gas could not sue the unit’s manufacturer for failing to warn him of the risk of such a release because HVAC technicians could reasonably be expected to know about it.
William Keith Johnson brought suit against American Standard Inc. in 2003, claiming that he had developed pulmonary fibrosis, a chronic progressive interstitial lung disease, as a result of exposure to phosgene—the colorless gas which gained infamy as a chemical weapon during World War I—during the course of his employment maintaining and repairing air conditioners manufactured by the company.
He specifically alleged that he brazed, or welded, refrigerant lines on an evaporator American Standard manufacturered in 1965 that contained a refrigerant known as R-22, which both created and exposed him to the gas.
Manufacturers have a general duty to warn consumers about hazards inherent in their products, and Johnson alleged that the company knew that servicing the evaporator would create the gas, but took no steps to warn him about it.
However, American Standard moved for summary judgment, arguing that it had no duty to warn of the potential hazards of R-22 because it only manufactured the evaporator containing the refrigerant, not the refrigerant itself.
It also claimed that it had no duty to warn about the risks of R-22 exposure because it could assume that trained HVAC technicians were aware of the risk given that HVAC technicians who work on commercial equipment must be certified by the federal Environmental Protection Agency with “universal certification.” The certification is the agency’s highest certification, requiring passage of a five-part exam and allowing those certified to work on, and purchase, refrigerant for large commercial air conditioning systems.
Observing that there was “undisputed evidence that HVAC technicians could reasonably be expected to know of the hazard of brazing refrigerant lines,” Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Susan Bryant-Deason granted American Standard’s motion, and this district’s Court of Appeal, in an opinion by Justice Orville A. Armstrong of Div. Five, affirmed her decision.
The Supreme Court then granted review to determine whether the “sophisticated user” doctrine—which precludes a manufacturer’s liability for failure to warn of a product risk that a sophisticated user should have recognized and which has been adopted by federal courts in diversity cases—applied to strict liability or negligent failure to warn actions in California.
In an opinion by Justice Ming W. Chin, the court ruled that it did.
“Just as a manufacturer need not warn ordinary consumers about generally known dangers,” Chin wrote, “a manufacturer need not warn members of a trade or profession (sophisticated users) about dangers generally known to that trade or profession.”
“[I]ndividuals who represent that they are trained or are members of a sophisticated group of users are saying to the world that they possess the level of knowledge and skill associated with that class. If they do not actually possess that knowledge and skill, that fact should not give rise to liability on the part of the manufacturer.”
Chief Justice Ronald M. George, Justices Joyce L. Kennard, Marvin R. Baxter, Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, and Carlos R. Moreno, and Fifth District Court of Appeal Justice Herbert Levy, sitting by assignment, joined Chin in his opinion.
Justice Carol A. Corrigan did not take part in the case.
The case is Johnson v. American Standard, Inc., 08 S.O.S. 1981.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company