In Johnson v. American Standard ( California Supreme Court Case No. S139184 (4/3/08)) the California Supreme Court found the perfect case in which to finally adopt the "sophisticated user defense", something that the U.S. District Court predicted would occur in 1982. The "sophisticated user defense" exempts a manufacturer of a product from providing warnings about that product to sophisticated users reasonably should have known of the potential hazards.
American Standard was sued in this case based on both negligent and strict liability failure to warn causes of action, as well as strict liability design defect and breach of warranty. The defendant had sold HVAC evaporators that contained a chemical commonly used in such applications, R-22. When heated (as when welding coolant lines) R-22 breaks down into potentially toxic chemicals, including phosgene gas. Mr. Johnson developed pulmonary fibrosis, allegedly as a result of inhaling this gas.
This case was perfect for this purpose because the Plaintiff, Mr. Johnson, was an HVAC technician who had received the EPA's Universal certification, the highest possible certification available, after receiving training and after taking a five part test. The Court therefore had a case in which the individual plaintiff himself, not just the employer, could be found to be sophisticated and, moreover, the training that he had received was available for evaluation by the experts involved.
The Supreme Court held that the sophisticated user defense in California will:
a) use an objective, "should have known" standard, rather than requiring proof that the plaintiff themselves knew of the hazards;
b) will negate both negligence and strict liability causes of action for failure to warn, and;
c) be based on the knowledge that the sophisticated user should have had at the time of exposure.
What the Court carefully left unsaid was whether knowledge of a sophisticated employer will serve to negate claims by an employee against a third party manufacturer. The court did cite with approval the case of Fierro v. International Harvester (1982) 127 CA3d 862. In that case, in dicta, the Appellate Court had noted that the employer should have been aware of the hazards complained of in the case. The Supreme Court also directly referenced the Federal District Court rulings in In re: Related Asbestos Cases 543 F.Supp. 1142, 1151, in which the Court both noted that the defendants might claim that the Navy was a sophisticated user of asbestos products, but that the Plaintiffs might negate the defense by showing that the manufacturers should have known that the Navy would not take proper precautions.
The Supreme Court specifically refused to address those issues in this decision, leaving trial courts and parties to guess at the next ruling to come in the development of this defense.