Litigators Win Key Products Liability Ruling - California Supreme Court hands down unanimous decision in favor of client American Standard

In April 2008, Munger, Tolles & Olson lawyers Jeff Bleich, Blanca Young, Kathleen McDowell, Paul Watford, and Aimee Feinberg won a unanimous decision by the California Supreme Court for our client in Johnson v. American Standard. This was a highly anticipated products liability case, which attracted numerous amicus and was described by California Biz Lit as “one of the most important products liability cases in a long while.”

The case concerned a trained and certified HVAC technician who alleged that in the course of welding commercial HVAC units, he inhaled heated refrigerants that caused him respiratory injuries. He alleged that several manufacturers, including American Standard, had a duty to warn him that applying flame to refrigerant gas could cause a hazardous condition.

Munger Tolles defended that American Standard was not liable under the “sophisticated user” defense – a doctrine not previously recognized in California. Munger Tolles argued that a manufacturer has no duty to warn of a product’s potential danger when the plaintiff knows or should have known of the product’s hazards.

Munger Tolles won summary judgment on the ground that the hazards of heated refrigerant were well-known to trained technicians, and that plaintiff himself had completed a year-long course and passed a five-part test to obtain universal certification that included training on this subject. The trial court’s decision was affirmed on appeal in what the appeals court described a case of first impression in California. The Supreme Court affirmed unanimously, holding for the first time that manufacturers need not warn consumers about product hazards of which they should be aware. 

In reaching its decision, the Supreme Court established several other important principles of law. First, the Court recognized for the first time the “obvious danger” principle which establishes that a manufacturer has no duty to warn of a product hazard that is or should be obvious to the product’s users. In doing so, the Court acknowledged the dangers of a rule that would require indiscriminate warning of consumers. “Not all warnings, however, promote user safety. Requiring manufacturers to warn their products’ users in all instances would place an onerous burden on them and would ‘invite mass consumer disregard and ultimate contempt for the warning process.’” Slip op. at 15 (citations omitted).

The California Supreme Court also addressed and decided issues about the contours of the sophisticated user doctrine that have not been settled in other jurisdictions and will likely have implications nation-wide. Specifically, the Court held: (1) the doctrine applies not merely to users who were aware of the risk, but also to users who should have known about that risk (Id. at 15); (2) the doctrine applies to both negligence and strict liability causes of action (Id. at 16); and (3) the user's sophistication is judged not as of the date of manufacture, but as of the date the sophisticated user alleges he or she was injured (Id. at 19).