'Sophisticated users' should know product dangers, Calif. SC rules

Chris Rizo Apr. 4, 2008, 11:00am

SAN FRANCISCO - The California Supreme Court ruled Thursday that manufacturers cannot be held liable for not warning professionals about product dangers that should be known among members of their trade.

The high court ruled unanimously that manufacturers may assert the so-called sophisticated user doctrine, which says there is no duty to warn professionals about commonly known product dangers.

"For those individuals or members of professions who do know or should know about the product's potential dangers, that is, sophisticated users, the dangers should be obvious, and the defense should apply," Justice Ming Chin wrote for the court.

He added: "Just as a manufacturer need not warn ordinary consumers about generally known dangers, a manufacturer need not warn members of a trade or profession (sophisticated users) about dangers generally known to that trade or profession."

The underlying case was brought in 2002 by William Johnson, a certified heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) technician, who claimed he developed pulmonary fibrosis, a potentially fatal lung disease while repairing an air conditioning system at a California bank branch.

Johnson, represented by the Metzger Law Group of Long Beach, Calif., sued American Standard Inc., now known as Trane Inc., for failing to warn him that heating pipe containing R-22, a hydrochlorofluorocarbon refrigerant, could produce a toxic gas - phosgene, a nerve gas used in World War I.

Affirming a lower court's ruling, the state Supreme Court ruled that: "Requiring manufacturers to warn their products' users in all instances would 'invite mass consumer disregard and ultimate contempt for the warning process.'"

Among others, the Product Liability Advisory Council Inc. filed an amicus curiae brief with the court.

The case is Johnson v. American Standard Inc., 08 C.D.O.S. 3925.

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