A California appeals court earlier this month affirmed a trial court's dismissal of a product liability failure to warn claim, based on the sophisticated user doctrine. Walkowiak v. MP Associates, No. B220494, (Cal. Ct. App., 2d App. Dist., 3/9/11)(not published).

Plaintiff Christopher Walkowiak began working for a special effects company in the movie industry in 1994. His boss had a Class 1 Pyrotechnic Operator license, and Walkowiak received on-the-job training in special effects. He obtained a Class 3 Pyrotechnic Operator license in 1995 and a Class 2 license in 1998. In order to obtain these licenses, Walkowiak had to obtain references from pyrotechnicians and pass a written examination. The written examination was general in nature and did not cover every specific types of explosive device used in productions.

Defendant MP Associates (MP) manufactures pyrotechnic devices. Defendant Roger George Rentals (RGR) rents and sells special effects supplies, including pyrotechnic devices manufactured by MP. Its primary clientele is the entertainment industry. One of the products they sold was a simulated stinger missile (SSM). The SSM consists of a cardboard tube with a red plastic cap on one end and a white plastic cap on the other end. The tube contains pyrotechnic materials near the end with the red plastic cap. Prior to ignition, the white plastic cap is to be removed. Upon ignition, a pellet of pyrotechnic material is propelled out of the end of the tube by gunpowder. It produces bright white light and smoke, and it travels about 200 feet. It simulates the appearance of a missile. Pretty clever, and can fool the camera.

The SSM had a sticker on the side of the cardboard tube which read, “Dangerous. Handle With Care. Keep Fire Away.” This was a standard warning that MP placed on all of the pyrotechnic devices it sold. The SSM also had a piece of tape over the white plastic cap which read, “Remove Before Ignition. This Side Up.” Once the tape was removed, there was nothing on the SSM to indicate which end was to face up. Packaging materials which came with the SSM included a list of “Dos and Don’ts” which applied to pyrotechnic devices in general. The list included the warning not to “use any explosive material unless completely familiar with safe procedures for their use, or under the direction of competent, experienced persons.” However, the packaging materials did not include any specific instructions for use of the SSM. The manufacturer sold SSMs only to purchasers with a Class 1 or Class 2 Pyrotechnic Operator license. And the company would personally discuss use of the SSM with the purchaser. Since 1998, MP had reportedly sold over 20,000 SSMs. Until the accident in this case, there had been no misfires or injuries resulting from the use of an SSM.

On January 18, 2007, Walkowiak was working on the movie set for “Charlie Wilson’s War.” His supervisor instructed Walkowiak to test fire an SSM that had been leftover from a previous production, using the same shoulder launcher that had been used in “Over There.” The shoulder launcher consisted of a steel tube bolted to a rifle stock. The steel tube was closed at the end bolted to the rifle stock. The SSM was loaded into the open end of the steel tube. It was fired by means of a battery-operated power switch which was connected to the SSM by wires. Walkowiak’s Class 2 license allowed him to use the SSM fired from a shoulder launcher under the supervision of a Class 1 license holder.

But Walkowiak had not worked on “Over There.” He had never fired an SSM before or seen an SSM loaded into a shoulder launcher. He had not seen any instructions for using the SSM. What he did know was that the SSM was a controlled pyrotechnic device that was potentially dangerous. He knew that he should get questions regarding its use answered before using it. Walkowiak called one of the defendants and asked how to operate the shoulder launcher. Defendant told him how to wire and prepare the launcher. He did not tell Walkowiak how to load the SSM into the launcher, however. Before loading the SSM into the shoulder launcher, Walkowiak saw tape with printing on one end of the SSM. He did not recall seeing the words “Remove Before Ignition” or “This Side Up” on the tape. However, he understood these words to mean that the cap and tape should be removed before discharging the SSM, and “This Side Up” referred to the discharge end of the SSM.

Walkowiak removed the cap and the tape from the SSM. Walkowiak made the decision as to how to load the SSM into the shoulder launcher. Walkowiak loaded the SSM into the shoulder launcher and connected the wires. He believed he was loading the device safely and correctly. He knelt down and pointed the shoulder launcher toward a wall. After a countdown, Walkowiak fired the device. There was an explosion and a bright flash of light. The SSM exploded in the steel tube. The steel tube broke off the rifle stock and hit Walkowiak in the face, causing severe injury. It was determined that he had loaded the SSM in backwards.

Plaintiff sued the various parties in the chain of distribution of the SSM. The trial court dismissed the claim. The trial court explained that merely because an accident has occurred, there is no presumption of a defect or negligence. In this case, Walkowiak had not shown that the device had any physical, manufacturing or design defect. There was no evidence of even a single incident where the device was used properly but caused this kind of injury. Therefore, the trial court noted, the only potential basis for imposing liability on defendants was the breach of a duty to warn of a danger. The court added, however, that product liability cannot be based on failure to warn of a danger that is known or obvious to a user, under California law. Failure to warn of a danger that is generally known and recognized does not, by itself, render a product dangerous.

Plaintiff appealed. The court of appeals discussed the doctrine of sophisticated user. In explaining the development of the sophisticated user defense, the state Supreme Court had begun with the general principle that manufacturers have a duty to warn consumers about the hazards inherent in their products. This enables consumers to avoid the hazards through careful use of the products or refraining from using the products altogether. However, the sophisticated user defense exempts manufacturers from their typical obligation to provide product users with warnings about the products’ potential hazards. It provides that sophisticated users need not be warned about dangers of which they are already aware or should be aware. Because these sophisticated users are charged with knowing the particular product’s dangers, the failure to warn about those dangers is not the legal cause of any harm that product may cause. The rationale supporting the defense is that the failure to provide warnings about risks already known to a sophisticated purchaser usually is not a proximate cause of harm resulting from those risks suffered by the buyer’s employees or downstream purchasers. This is because the user’s knowledge of the dangers is the equivalent of prior notice.

In California, a manufacturer is not liable to a sophisticated user of its product for failure to warn of a risk, harm, or danger, if the sophisticated user knew or should have known of that risk, harm, or danger. An objective test applies, because it would be nearly impossible for a manufacturer to predict or determine whether a given user or member of the sophisticated group actually has knowledge of the dangers because of the infinite number of user idiosyncrasies. Hence, even if a user was truly unaware of a product’s hazards, that fact is irrelevant if the danger was objectively obvious to the expert user. And, the defense applies to both negligence and strict liability causes of action.

Here, Walkowiak’s own deposition testimony supported the finding that he was a sophisticated user of pyrotechnics. He had a Class 2 Pyrotechnic Operator license and years of experience in special effects. He knew that the SSM was a controlled pyrotechnic device and potentially dangerous. He understood the nature of the warnings provided on and with the SSM. He knew to ask for instructions on how to operate the device, and in fact asked for some information. In other words, said the court, Walkowiak knew or should have known of the risk involved in use of the SSM.

That Walkowiak did not have experience using the SSM and could only use it under supervision did not establish that he was unaware of the risks associated with its use. His testimony established that he was aware of the risks: he knew the SSM was dangerous, and he understood the nature of the warnings on the device, “Remove Before Ignition” and “This Side Up.” He simply did not know how to use the SSM with the shoulder launcher. Plaintiff could cite no authority, however, that would require a manufacturer not only to apprise a user of the risks associated with use of its product but also to provide instruction on how to use the product in a device it did not manufacture.

(The court remanded the design defect claim, under the risk benefit test, as the trial court had jumped the gun on its conclusion that an alternate design would make the SSM unsuitable for other uses.)