This post discusses a recent Minnesota Supreme Court opinion rejecting a “duty to train” claim in a non-drug/device case.  The Court held that a manufacturer doesn't have a duty to train persons how to use its products, even where the manufacturer undertook to provide training as part of the purchase price of the product at issue.

The case, Glorvigen v. Cirrus Design Corp., ___ N.W.2d ___, 2012 WL 2913203 (Minn. 2012), decided on July 18, 2012, involved an airplane crash where the pilot/owner and his passenger died.  The estates of the pilot and passenger filed suit against (guess who?) the manufacturer and seller of the plane. The Minnesota Supreme Court was reviewing the appellate court's reversal of the jury's special verdict in plaintiffs' favor.  That procedural posture meant that, if the defendant was going to win on appeal, it essentially had to do it as a matter of law, and that's just what happened.

The pilot purchased the plane about a month prior to the crash.  As part of the purchase price, the manufacturer defendant provided a 2-day on the ground and in-flight transition training course.   Transition training is standard in the aviation industry.  It builds on the pilot’s previous experience and gives the pilot individualized training in the new plane.  We've seen similar programmes offered by makers of complex medical devices.

In addition to the training, the defendant in Glorvigen provided written materials, including an FAA-approved Pilot’s Operating Handbook.  Beyond that, although the FAA required most pilots to earn a “high performance aircraft endorsement” before flying the plane, the defendant marketed the plane to “pilots with a wide range of experience.”  In this case, the pilot sought a “high-performance aircraft endorsement” through the training.

The deceased pilot attended the 2-day training, although there was a dispute over whether the pilot completed the full training, including the section that would have taught him how to activate the autopilot-assisted recovery maneuver -- the specific maneuver the pilot needed to perform to avoid the fatal crash.  Hence, there was a direct connection between the omitted training and the accident.

Plaintiffs did not claim that any of the written instructions were inaccurate or incomplete.  Instead, plaintiffs argued that the written instructions could not adequately instruct the pilot in the safe use of the plane because it lacked the omitted training.  Glorvigen, 2012 WL 2913203, at *10.

In rejecting plaintiffs' theory, the Court held that while the defendant had a duty to warn, “[t]he duty to warn has never before required a supplier or manufacturer to provide training, only to provide accurate and thorough instructions on the safe use of the product...”  Id.  “[T]o hold now that [defendant] must provide training would either create a new common law duty to train or expand the duty to warn to include training … [which] would require an unprecedented expansion of the law.”  Id.

That it would indeed.

The Court went on to analyze whether the defendant, despite not having a duty to train, assumed the duty by undertaking to provide the training.  This "Good Samaritan" theory is based on the tort doctrine that one who voluntarily assumes a duty must exercise reasonable care, even if not otherwise obligated to provide the care.  Glorvigen, 2012 WL 2913203, at *11.  However, because the defendant undertook to provide the training as part of the purchase contract, the Court held that any breach of that obligation arose from the contract and plaintiffs could not recover in tort.  Id. at *12.

The “duty to train” comes up fairly frequently in drug/device cases, and this may be the first high court of any state to rule directly on the issue.  The Minnesota Court’s holding supports our current understanding of the viability of a “duty to train” claim in the drug/device context.  In the absence of any special FDA requirement, no separate “duty to train” doctors using prescription medical products has been recognized:  

[T]he fact that individuals who have received training on medical equipment subsequently misuse the equipment to the detriment of a patient, standing alone, is insufficient to establish a breach of a duty to the injured patient on the part of the entity that provided the training. By providing training, [defendant] did not become a guarantor of the competence of [those it trained].

Chamian v. Sharplan Lasers, Inc., 2004 WL 2341569, at *7 (Mass. Super. Sept. 24, 2004).  “[A] manufacturer should be able to presume mastery of basic operations by experts or skilled professionals . . . and should not owe a duty to warn or instruct such persons on how to perform basic operations.”  Brown v. Drake-Willock International, Ltd., 530 N.W.2d 510, 515 (Mich. App. 1995) (plaintiff was a medical technician).  See Woodhouse v. Sanofi-Aventis U.S. LLC, 2011 WL 3666595, at *3 (W.D. Tex. June 23, 2011) (allegation that defendant “failed to train, warn or educate” physicians failed to state a plausible claim because no such duty exists); Lemon v. Anonymous Physician, 2005 WL 2218359, at *2 (S.D. Ind. Sept. 12, 2005) (a manufacturer “does not automatically have a duty to properly train, instruct or assist a physician on the surgical implantation and use of the device” but “can affirmatively undertake that duty”); Rounds v. Genzyme Corp., 2011 WL 692218, at *3 (M.D. Fla. Feb. 18, 2011) (“The difference between a ‘failure to train’ and a ‘failure to warn’ is semantic”; manufacturer who provided physician training was not liable where package insert provided an “ accurate, clear, and unambiguous warning”).

Since Minnesota is one of our more liberal tort states, its rejection of the duty to train is particularly noteworthy and may provide useful persuasive authority in other jurisdictions.