“Sophisticated User” Doctrine Rejected by Court in Mesothelioma Case

warship.jpgJudges on an appellate panel overseeing an asbestos lawsuit in California rejected an assertion by defendants that the case was collaterally estopped because of a Pennsylvania case involving the same plaintiff, when justices there granted summary judgment on the basis of the sophisticated user doctrine.

The California case is not estopped because, justices ruled, it involves different defendants than the Pennsylvania litigation. In the latter, the defendants asserted the plaintiff,who worked in various U.S. Navy shipyards from the late 1950s through 1989, was a “sophisticated user,” meaning the defendants did not owe the same duty to warn.

Justices in the California Court of Appeals, First District Division Two, reviewing the case of Gottschall v. Crane Co., also found the federal court in the Pennsylvania action did not properly apply the law with regard to the sophisticated user defense.

Our mesothelioma lawyers are familiar with the “sophisticated user” doctrine employed by defendants seeking to excuse their failure to warn plaintiffs of the inherent dangers of handling and working with asbestos.

In product liability law, manufacturers are responsible for injuries caused by product defects. Products that contained asbestos (and there were many throughout the 20th century) have been found to be inherently dangerous and pose health risks to users. Many manufacturers knew that at the time, but the danger wasn’t obvious to most users. Therefore, manufacturers had a duty to warn of that risk.

Since so many failed in this duty, people diagnosed years later with mesothelioma, asbestosis, or lung cancer can sue under the failure to warn doctrine. However, a defense to this assertion is that the user was “sophisticated” and thus didn’t need a warning because he or she knew or should have known about the danger.

A sophisticated user is one who has reason to know how to safely use a dangerous product. In order to be successful in this defense, a manufacturer needs to show the plaintiff had professional skills, legal duties, experience, or training such that he or she could be expected to know or learn about the potential hazardous effects of the product.

Alternatively, a defendant may assert that one’s employer was a “sophisticated intermediary.” That is, the employer was aware of the ill effects of the product, and therefore it is the employer that is liable, not the manufacturer. That’s essentially what was asserted in the Gottschall case – that under prior California case law, the Navy is a sophisticated user.

It’s true that in at least one prior case, affidavits submitted by Navy officers indicate some knowledge of asbestos hazards by the military top brass at the time the plaintiff was allegedly exposed to the material while working on Navy ships.

However, the problem is that technically, California law does not recognize the “sophisticated intermediary” defense. Furthermore, the decedent in this case was an “unsophisticated worker.”

Ultimately what this means, at least in California, is that an employer’s special knowledge of a hazard doesn’t automatically transfer to workers. Although the case has no direct impact on plaintiffs in D.C. or Florida, it’s possible judges facing similar arguments will look to this case and the legal reasoning for guidance.

Help for mesothelioma victims can be found at The Ferraro Law Firm by calling 1-800-275-3332. Offices in Miami and Washington, D.C.

Additional Resources:
Sophisticated user doctrine rejected in Calif. asbestos case, Oct. 14, 2014, By Heather Isringhausen Gvillo, Legal Newsline

More Blog Entries:
The Ferraro Law Firm Secures A $37 Million Jury Award, Sept. 25, 2014, Asbestos Attorney Blog

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