Duty To Warn: Sophisticated User

Webb v. Special Electric Company, Inc. (2013) 214 Cal.App.4th 595, 153 Cal.Rptr.3d 882

A man who allegedly contracted mesothelioma as a result of working for many years around pipe containing asbestos, filed a product liability action against Johns-Manville, the pipe manufacturer, as well as Special Electric, a company which supplied bags of asbestos to Johns-Manville. The plaintiff contended that both defendants were liable for failing to warn of the risk of injury and disease presented by the use and handling of asbestos.

A jury rendered a verdict in favor of the plaintiff, finding that Special Electric had failed to adequately warn consumers of its products’ potential risks, and assessed 49% fault to the manufacturer and 18% to Special Electric. The trial court granted judgment notwithstanding the verdict, and entered judgment in favor of Special Electric, relying on the rule that sophisticated users of dangerous products need not be warned about dangers of which they are already aware. The court found that as a matter of law, the supplier had no duty to warn Johns-Manville because it was already aware that asbestos was a dangerous product. However, the court of appeal reversed, holding that the trial court’s finding that the supplier had discharged its duty was unsupported by the record:

The trial court’s rulings that as a matter of law Special Electric had no duty to warn foreseeable users about its asbestos, and bore no liability to the Webbs, was based on a number of conclusions: that warnings were printed on the packaging for most or all of the asbestos supplied by Special Electric to Johns–Manville; that as a sophisticated user of asbestos, Johns–Manville needed no warnings in any event; and that it would have been difficult or impossible for Special Electric to warn downstream users of Johns–Manville’s products containing its asbestos, such as Webb. No one in this appeal doubts that Johns–Manville was a sophisticated user of asbestos, who needed no warning about its dangers. But whether all the asbestos shipped to Johns–Manville had warnings, whether the warnings were adequate, and whether reasonable efforts to warn downstream users could have been undertaken by Special Electric, are issues of fact. Special Electric has made no showing that the evidence on these issues was undisputed, and apparently failed to persuade the jury.

. . .
Special Electric argues that its duty to warn consumers such as Webb evaporated because Johns–Manville also failed to warn consumers such as Webb. . . .  Special Electric contends that it was entitled to expect that Johns–Manville would fulfill its duty to warn, in the absence of evidence that Special Electric knew or should have known that Johns–Manville would breach that duty. It “could not have foreseen that Johns–Manville … would not warn about its Transite pipe. What could be more ‘highly extraordinary’?” Johns–Manville had a duty to warn, “and nothing indicated it would not.” Because there was no evidence that Special Electric knew that Johns–Manville would not fulfill its duty to warn users of its asbestos, Special Electric contends, the trial court was correct in ruling that as a matter of law Special Electric could not be held liable for failing to warn Webb.

We disagree. The Johnson and Stewart cases (as well as many others) hold that when a manufacturer or supplier places dangerous products into the stream of commerce, a duty arises to warn foreseeable consumers of those products about their products’ hazards. Under those cases, that duty is owed not just to the product’s initial purchaser, but also to a downstream user or consumer, such as Webb.

. . .
In this case, the jury heard evidence, and found, that Special Electric had supplied a dangerous product, with knowledge that it was dangerous and with knowledge that consumers such as Webb would not know it was dangerous. Based on these facts, Special Electric’s duty to warn potential consumers such as Webb arose as a matter of law,….

. . .
In sum, the trial court had no legal basis (and articulated none) that could justify its determination that Special Electric owed no duty to warn Webb, as a potential user of its asbestos. Under the Johnson and Stewartcases, Special Electric’s duty to warn foreseeable potential users such as Webb (not just the initial user, Johns–Manville) arose as a matter of law from the jury’s fully supported findings.

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