A recent California Court of Appeal decision limits the use of the “sophisticated user” defense to instances where the user has specific knowledge of the product – generalized knowledge or training is not sufficient.  In Collin v. CalPortland, J-MM was unable to persuade the Court that plaintiff was a sophisticated user because J-MM did not put forward evidence of plaintiff’s knowledge of J-MM’s specific product.

In Collin v. CalPortland Co., 2014 DJDAR 10005 (July 31, 2014), the Third District Court of Appeal in California elaborated on requirements for the “sophisticated user” defense when seeking summary judgment.  In its review of a grant of summary judgment, the Court reversed the trial court’s decision and held that J-MM, a manufacturer of cement pipe, could not rely on the sophisticated user defense to demonstrate they had no duty to warn the plaintiff of the dangers associated with using J-MM’s product.

Under the sophisticated user defense, a manufacturer has no duty to warn a plaintiff who is a sophisticated user of its product because the plaintiff knew or should have known of the dangers of the product.  The sophisticated user defense is an exception to the general duty to warn and does not rely on the plaintiff’s subjective knowledge but instead uses an objective standard to determine whether the danger in question was so generally known within the plaintiff’s trade or profession that the manufacturer is not expected to provide a warning specific to the group to which the plaintiff belongs.

In Collin v. CalPortland, J-MM argued that because Plaintiff had worked in construction for many years, completed an apprenticeship in carpentry, and obtained a contractor license, he was a sophisticated user.  Additionally, J-MM pointed to the fact that Collin received information from the contractors’ board about the hazards of asbestos and he saw notices at jobsites specific to asbestos.  However, J-MM was unable to persuade the Court that they were entitled to summary judgment based on the sophisticated user defense.  The Court compared Collin to the plaintiff in Johnson v. American Standard, Inc., (2008) 43 Cal. 4th 56, and found that unlike Johnson, Collin had no “specialized knowledge or training with regard to J-MM’s product, Transite.”  Additionally, because there was no expert testimony that Collin should have known of the risks or dangers associated with J-MM’s product given his training or work experience, and because Collin did not read any material safety data sheets or see any warnings on any of J-MM’s product, J-MM could not rely on a sophisticated user defense.

CalPortland highlights for defendants the importance of expert testimony and evidence of specific exposure to information about dangers associated with a defendant’s product when raising the sophisticated user defense.  The Court seems most persuaded by evidence that plaintiffs had specialized training or knowledge with regard to a defendant’s specific product, as opposed to general training in the plaintiff’s field.