Robert C. Clifford, a consultant to law firms and mediator in insurance and litigation matters, discusses the implication of Johnson v. American Standard Inc. ( 43 Cal. 4th 56, 74 Cal. Rptr. 3d 108), where the California Supreme Court adopted the sophisticated user doctrine as a defense to negate a manufacturer’s duty to warn of a product’s potential danger when the plaintiff has or should have advance knowledge of a product’s inherent hazards. Although warnings of the hazards of using a product may limit the manufacturer's liability, not all warnings promote user safety. Also, requiring warnings on all products would be burdensome on manufacturers and would invite mass consumer disregard and ultimate contempt for the warning process. Finn v. G.D. Searle & Co. ( 35 Cal. 3d 691, 702, 200 Cal. Rptr. 870). Requiring warnings of obvious or generally known risks could reduce the efficacy of warnings generally.
In Johnson v. American Standard Inc., the plaintiff was a trained and certified heating, ventilation and air conditioning technician. While he was welding refrigerant lines on an air conditioning unit, he was exposed to phosgene gas, causing him to develop pulmonary fibrosis. He contended that the defendant failed to provide him with a warning that informed users that welding refrigerant lines could result in the creation of phosgene gas.
Because a sophisticated user is charged with knowing the particular product's dangers, the failure to warn about those dangers is not the legal cause of any harm that the product may cause. The rationale supporting the defense is that the failure to provide warnings about risks already known to a sophisticated purchaser usually is not a proximate cause of harm. The user's knowledge of the dangers is the equivalent to prior knowledge. Johnson v. American Standard Inc., citing Billiar v. Minesota Mining and Mfg. Co., (623 F. 240, 243 [2d Cir.1980]).
In this Emerging Issues Commentary, Clifford explains that one lesson to be learned from the holding of Johnson v. American Standard is that a defendant manufacturer has a significant defense to a claim based upon either a strict liability or an action for negligence based on a claim for failure to warn. However, counsel should make certain to establish that the plaintiff is in fact a sophisticated user. The presentation of expert testimony as to the plaintiff's experience and the fact that a person in his or her occupation would ordinarily be acquainted with the hazards of using the product would normally be required.
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