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Johnson v. Honeywell International Inc.

November 19, 2009

WILLIAM KEITH JOHNSON, PLAINTIFF AND APPELLANT,
v.
HONEYWELL INTERNATIONAL INC. ET AL., DEFENDANTS AND RESPONDENTS.



APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County. Susan Bryant-Deason, Judge. Reversed and remanded. (Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. BC287442).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Armstrong, J.

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

"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." (Johnson v. American Standard, Inc. (2008) 43 Cal.4th 56, 71.) (Hereinafter, "American Standard.") This is the sophisticated user defense, and it applies to negligence and strict liability warning defect claims. (Id. at p. 65.)

In this case, which comes to us after a demurrer was sustained without leave to amend, we are asked to determine whether the defense also applies to a cause of action for negligence for failure to warn on a theory of negligence per se, or to a cause of action for strict liability/design defect under the risk/benefit analysis.*fn1 We find that the defense does apply to the negligence cause of action, but does not apply to the strict liability cause of action.

We thus reverse the judgment in favor of respondents Honeywell International Inc., E. I. DuPont de Nemours and Company, and W.W. Grainger, Inc., on appellant William Johnson's complaint against them.

BACKGROUND

Johnson is an EPA certified HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) technician who worked on commercial air conditioning systems. Repair of such systems may involve brazing pipes, and as the Supreme Court explained in American Standard, supra, those systems "commonly use R-22, a hydrochlorofluorocarbon refrigerant. The refrigerant can decompose into phosgene gas when exposed to flame or high heat, as could happen while a technician is brazing air conditioner pipes containing residual refrigerant. Exposure to phosgene gas may cause numerous health problems, . . . ." (Id. at p. 61.)

Johnson sued American Standard, a manufacturer of air conditioning equipment, and respondents,*fn2 who are manufacturers of R-22 refrigerant, alleging that he was injured by the phosgene gas that was created from R-22 refrigerant when he brazed air conditioner pipes, during the normal course of repair.

The case initially proceeded as to American Standard. Against that defendant, Johnson brought causes of action for common law negligence, strict liability for failure to warn, and strict liability for design defect, on the consumer expectations test. On each cause of action, Johnson's theory was that American Standard knew that harmful phosgene gas would be created when the equipment was serviced, but failed to provide an adequate warning.

American Standard moved for summary judgment on the ground, inter alia, that it had no duty to warn because the risk was within the professional knowledge of HVAC installers and repairers -- the sophisticated user defense. Although that defense had never been squarely adopted in California, the trial court found that the defense applied, as did we.

The Supreme Court affirmed, adopting the sophisticated user defense for California law. (American Standard, supra, 43 Cal.4th at p. 65.) The Court explained that "Under the sophisticated user defense, sophisticated users need not be warned about dangers of which they are already aware or should be aware. (See 4 Shearman & Redfield, Negligence (rev. ed. 1041) Manufacturers and Vendors, § 656, p. 1576.) 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. (Owen, Products Liability Law (2005) § 9.5, p. 599.) 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.' (Ibid.) This is because the user's knowledge of the dangers is the equivalent of prior notice. [Citations.]" (American Standard, supra, 43 Cal.4th at p. 65.)

Noting that "there is little functional distinction between the two theories," the Supreme Court held that the defense is applicable to warning defect claims in both negligence and strict liability causes of action. (Id. at p. 71.)

The Supreme Court also found that the undisputed evidence at summary judgment was that manufacturers and HVAC technicians had known of the dangers of phosgene exposure as early as 1931, and that "the danger created by exposing refrigerant to high heat and flame was well known within the community of HVAC technicians to which plaintiff belonged." (American Standard, supra, 43 Cal.4th at p. 74.) Thus, Johnson, a sophisticated user, should have known of the risk and the sophisticated user defense defeated all causes of action against American Standard.

On remand, the case proceeded as to respondents. Initially, the causes of action against them were the same as the causes of action against American Standard, but Johnson filed an amended complaint, bringing instead causes of action for negligence on a negligence per se theory, and for strict liability on a design defect risk-benefit theory. Respondents successfully demurred to the complaint, again largely based on the sophisticated user defense. The trial court found that the defense barred both causes of action, and entered judgment for respondents.

DISCUSSION

1. Negligence ...


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