The California Supreme Court agreed last week to review an asbestos case involving an important failure to warn theory. See Webb v. Special Electric Co. Inc., No. S209927 (Cal., 2013).

Plaintiff Webb was diagnosed with mesothelioma, which he attributed to his exposure to asbestos products, including Transite pipe allegedly manufactured by Johns-Manville at its plant in Long Beach, California, which allegedly contained asbestos supplied to it by Special Electric.  Transite pipe was four inches in diameter, and came in five-foot and sometimes ten-foot lengths. It was typically used for water-heater venting. Webb alleged he used no gloves or respiratory protection when handling the pipe. 

After trial, the lower court decided it would hear Special Electric's motions for nonsuit and directed verdict, both of which argued, inter alia, that Special Electric had no duty to warn Johns-Manville of the dangers of asbestos, either because Johns-Manville had been warned of those dangers, or because the dangers were obvious and known to Johns-Manville, a sophisticated user of asbestos. Special Electric argued also that it had no duty to take measures to warn allegedly unsophisticated downstream users of products containing its asbestos, such as Webb, because Special Electric could rely on Johns-Manville to provide those warnings. The trial court agreed, concluding that "telling Johns-Manville about asbestos is like telling the Pope about Catholicism." In so doing, the trial court relied on the well-settled rule that sophisticated users of dangerous products need not be warned about dangers of which they are already aware, derived from Restatement Second, Torts, section 388.

Plaintiff appealed, and the court of appeals reversed. Much of the discussion was on procedural issues (timing and notice, etc.) but our focus is on the alternative ruling on the merits.  The court of appeals agreed that Johns-Manville was a sophisticated user of asbestos, one which needed no warning about its dangers. But, nevertheless, reversed, finding that 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, were issues of fact. The jury found that Webb had been exposed to asbestos sold or supplied by Special Electric; that the risks of its asbestos products were known or knowable to Special Electric; and that the risks of Special Electric‘s asbestos products presented a substantial danger to consumers, that ordinary consumers would not recognize. Special Electric‘s duty to warn foreseeable potential users such as Webb, said the court, arose as a matter of law, as seen from the jury‘s fully supported findings.  Because Special Electric‘s duty existed as a matter of law, the jury was entitled to—and did—find from the evidence that Special Electric breached that duty and that its breach was a substantial factor in causing Webb‘s harm, whether some other factors (such as superseding cause) terminated Special Electric‘s share of liability, and the appropriate apportionment of liability between the various actors.

The state Supreme Court will consider the issues now, and tell us what happened to the sophisticated user doctrine.  The concern is that the court of appeals appears to be saying that it can be a tort to fail to tell a customer something they already know, and that it can also be a tort to fail to impose on a direct customer a contractual duty to do something with their customer they already have a tort duty to do. On causation, the dissent offered a cogent analogy: if a defendant in an automobile collision breached the duty of care by driving a car with nonfunctioning headlights, then the plaintiff cannot prove causation merely by demonstrating that the defendant’s car caused the plaintiff‘s injuries when they collided. Rather, the plaintiff must show that the defendant’s driving with nonfunctioning headlights caused the plaintiff’s injuries (because, for example, the accident happened in the dark of night rather than in broad daylight). The case arguably can be limited to unique facts, procedural posture, and some strange jury instructions, but perhaps the high court will clarify that the California courts cannot ignore the sophisticated user doctrine and its impact on duty to warn.