Products Liability: Sophisticated User Doctrine

By on April 18, 2008 - Comments off

Johnson v. American Standard, Inc. (2008) 43 Cal.4th 56, 74 Cal.Rptr.3d 108
An EPA certified HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) technician who worked on commercial air conditioning systems, filed a products liability action against a number of manufacturers of air conditioning equipment, chemical manufacturers and chemical suppliers. The plaintiff alleged he was injured by exposure to phosgene gas during maintenance and repair of commercial air conditioning systems, and that the defendants should have warned him that the gas, which can cause a potentially fatal lung disease, is created during the process of brazing, or welding, refrigerant lines containing R-22 refrigerant.

The manufacturer moved for summary judgment, arguing that under the sophisticated user doctrine, it had no duty to warn because the risk was within the professional knowledge of HVAC installers and repairers. The trial court granted summary judgment and the court of appeal affirmed, holding that California law recognizes the sophisticated user doctrine, and that the undisputed evidence showed that HVAC technicians could reasonably be expected to know the hazard of brazing refrigerant lines.

The California Supreme Court affirmed, adopting the sophisticated user doctrine to negate a manufacturer’s duty to warn of a products potential danger when the plaintiff has or should have advanced knowledge of the product’s inherent hazards:

Like the Court of Appeal, we also conclude that the defense should apply in this case to defeat all causes of action for defendant’s alleged failure to warn. As the Court of Appeal observed, defendant presented undisputed evidence that HVAC technicians could reasonably be expected to know of the hazard of brazing refrigerant lines. Plaintiff’s expert testified that HVAC technicians knew or should have known of the risk of phosgene at the time defendant manufactured the product in 1965. Defendant’s expert testified that throughout his 28 years as an HVAC technician, it was “widely known among HVAC technicians” that when R-22 is heated it can decompose into toxic by-products that include phosgene. Thus, the danger created by exposing refrigerant to high heat and flame was well known within the community of HVAC technicians to which plaintiff belonged.

Plaintiff’s claim that he had read the MSDS for R-22 but did not understand that he should avoid heating R-22 is also without merit. The expert testimony at trial showed that the EPA requires HVAC professionals “to understand the decomposition products of refrigerants at high temperatures.” In addition, plaintiff’s excuse that he had never heard of phosgene gas and that when he smelled the fresh-cut-grass odor he did not stop or take any precaution, also does not support his claim. As noted above, the study guide informed HVAC technicians that R-22 can form dangerous substances when in contact with high heat, and the MSDS for R-22 informed technicians that the product can decompose and release toxic gases when in contact with heat. The evidence is clear that HVAC technicians knew or should have known of the dangers of R-22 heat exposure.

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