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Sophisticated user doctrine rejected in Calif. asbestos case

By Heather Isringhausen Gvillo | Oct 14, 2014

SAN FRANCISCO (Legal Newsline) – A California judge has rejected an asbestos defendant’s argument that a San Francisco case was collateral estoppel of a connected Pennsylvania case where summary judgment was granted based on the “sophisticated user” doctrine.

Justice James A. Richman delivered the Oct. 8 opinion in California’s First District Court of Appeals reversing the lower court’s decision. Justice J. Anthony Kline and Judge Steven A. Brick concurred.

Simply put, the appeal involves two separate asbestos cases located in two separate jurisdictions arising out of the same decedent's asbestos exposure. However, because the cases involve different defendants, the cases are not collaterally estopped.

Decedent Robert Gottschall is the plaintiff in the complaint, filed in the San Francisco Superior Court in February 2010 and alleging he developed mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos-containing products from 1957 to 1989 while working in various shipyards with Navy vessels.

He later died from his injury and his family filed a wrongful death action in addition to the original personal injury case. The wrongful death case was transferred to the Asbestos Multi-district Litigation court in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

Then in February 2012, defendant Crane Co. filed a motion for summary judgment in the San Francisco Superior Court alleging the “sophisticated user” defense.

The “sophisticated user” defense “exempts manufacturers from their typical obligation to provide products users are charged with knowing the particular product’s dangers, the failure to warn about those dangers is not the legal cause of any harm that product may cause,” the opinion states.

Crane Co. relies on the Pennsylvania federal court’s decision when it granted defendant General Dynamics Corp.’s request for summary judgment in the wrongful death action. In both summary judgment requests, the defendants supplied asbestos-containing products to the Navy, meaning the defendants are collaterally estopped from relitigating the issue in the Superior Court.

The lower court agreed. On appeal, Richman disagreed, holding that the federal court’s resolution of this issue was wrong under California law, and thus collateral estoppel does not apply.

“It is questionable whether the doctrine of collateral estoppel applies to pure question of law,” the court stated. “The issue here – interpretation of the salary ordinance – was one of law.”

The Pennsylvania federal court appropriately applied California law, but incorrectly applied the law in regards to the “Sophisticated user” defense, the court ruled.

Richman explained that the California Supreme Court first endorsed the “sophisticated user” doctrine in 2008 when it held that “users of products that could be seen as potentially dangerous cannot hold the producers of those products liable if those users were clearly knowledgeable about the product being used and its potential danger.”

The doctrine is rationalized by determining that providing a warning is not typically a proximate cause of harm because a sophisticated user’s knowledge of the dangers associated with working with asbestos-containing materials is “the equivalent of prior notice.”

When determining whether a defendant owes a duty to warn, the court explained that it is generally measured by what the entire class of sophisticated users knew rather than measure it by the individual plaintiff’s subjective knowledge.

However, the appeals court held that the lower court erred when it determined that the appellants were collaterally estopped by the Pennsylvania federal court’s decision.

Richman added that applying collateral estoppel against the appellants would be an injustice.

Furthermore, Richman rejected Crane Co.’s argument that the case involves a “split” cause of action.

He explained that Crane argued the case involves the splitting of a cause of action because the appellants sought relief from some defendants in the Pennsylvania federal court and from others in the California state court.

The appeals court disagreed. While both cases involve the decedent’s death from mesothelioma, the actions were brought against different products of asbestos containing materials – meaning different defendants were involved in different actions, it ruled.

“If the defendants are both jointly and severally liable, joinder is not mandatory but permissive, and the plaintiff, although he or she has but one cause of action, may sue one defendant first and another later,” the opinion stated.

Therefore, the appeals court reversed the lower court’s judgment and remanded the case to the trial court with instructions to vacate its order granting summary judgment for Crane Co.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Heather Isringhausen Gvillo at asbestos@legalnewsline.com

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