California Adopts the “Sophisticated User” Defense

California Adopts the “Sophisticated User” Doctrine and Defense in Alleged Failure to Warn in Products Liability Actions.

In William Keith Johnson v. American Standard, Inc., (2008 WL 878933), the California Supreme Court held that the sophisticated user defense in products liability actions applies in California.  In its ruling, the Court held that the relevant time for determining user sophistication was the date the sophisticated user was injured and knew or should have known of the risk.  The Court further focused on the sophisticated user population’s objective knowledge of the risk at issue, and not the individual plaintiff’s subjective understanding of the risk.  Therefore, the Court confirmed that a manufacturer owes no duty to warn of a danger that the ultimate user knows of, or should know of, at the time of injury.

In Johnson, Plaintiff was an EPA “universal” certified heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) technician.  “Universal” certification is the highest certification an HVAC technician can obtain from the EPA and allows those certified to work on refrigerant for large commercial air conditioning systems.  These technicians are trained for brazing (welding) and part replacement.

Large air conditioning systems typically use R-22, a hydrochlorofluorocarbon refrigerant.  The R-22 can decompose into phosgene gas when exposed to flame or high heat, such as when a technician is brazing air conditioner pipes with residual refrigerant.  Exposure to phosgene gas may cause numerous health problems, and manufacturers as well as HVAC technicians have been aware of the dangers of this type of exposure since as early as 1931.  Furthermore, the dangers and risks associated with R-22 are noted on Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS’s).

Plaintiff filed suit alleging causes of action for negligence, strict liability – failure to warn, strict liability – design defect, and breach of implied warranties for American Standard’s alleged failure to warn of the potential hazards of R-22 exposure.  Plaintiff alleged that American Standard knew that servicing air conditioning systems would create harmful phosgene gas, but failed to provide plaintiff with adequate warnings.

American Standard moved for summary judgment on two grounds.  First, that it did not owe any duty to the plaintiff because it did not manufacture the refrigerant, only the evaporator that contained the refrigerant.  Second, that it had no duty to warn about the risks of R-22 exposure because the group of trained professionals to which plaintiff belonged, and plaintiff himself, were aware of the risks posed by exposure to R-22.  The trial court granted defendant’s motion on both grounds.

The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s judgment on the sophisticated user defense, holding that a manufacturer cannot be held liable to a sophisticated user of its product for failure to warn of a risk, which the user should already reasonably know.  The Court of Appeal further found that there was undisputed evidence that HVAC technicians could reasonably be expected to know of the hazard of brazing refrigerant lines.

The court disregarded plaintiff’s testimony that he had read the MSDS for R-22, but did not understand that he should avoid heating it.  Rather, the court based its ruling on undisputed declarations and deposition testimony that EPA certification required those professionals to understand the decomposition of refrigerants at high temperatures and that the study guide informed users that refrigerant in contact with high heat can form dangerous substances.

The California Supreme Court affirmed the ruling of the appellate court and found that the sophisticated user defense applies in California.  It found that the undisputed evidence was that the dangers of heating R-22 was widely known in the HVAC community, and because plaintiff was an EPA “universal” certified technician, plaintiff knew, or should have known, of the dangers of heating R-22.  Therefore, plaintiff’s claims, all of which were based upon a failure to warn, were defeated.

Robert B. Katz, Esq., is a principal of Katz & Associates, and practices in the litigation areas of Toxic Tort, Construction Defect, Products Liability and General Liability.  Katz & Associates is licensed in California, Nevada, and Arizona, with offices in Las Vegas, Nevada and Woodland Hills, California.  (818) 716-6110; (702) 435-5916.