In Webb v. Special Elec. Co.,1 the California Supreme Court formally adopted the "sophisticated intermediary doctrine," which provides an additional defense that manufacturers and suppliers can assert against product liability claims in California.
The defendant Special Electric was a broker who sold crocidolite asbestos to Johns-Manville, who used it to manufacture pipe that was ultimately sold to a company (Pyramid Pipe & Supply) where the plaintiff worked as a warehouseman and truck driver. Special Electric argued that the sophisticated intermediary defense precluded the plaintiff's failure to warn claims because "Johns–Manville was the oldest and largest manufacturer of asbestos-containing products in the country," and "maintain[ed] plants across the United States and overseas."2
The California Supreme Court observed at the outset that the "case raises a question about the extent of a supplier's duty to warn. Specifically, when a company supplies a hazardous raw material for use in making a finished product, what is the scope of the supplier's duty to warn ultimate users of the finished product about risks related to the raw material? The answer implicates a defense known as the sophisticated intermediary doctrine," which suppliers may invoke to "discharge" their duty to warn "by relying on others to warn downstream users."3
"Under this rule, a supplier may discharge its duty to warn end users about known or knowable risks in the use of its product if it: (1) provides adequate warnings to the product's immediate purchaser, or sells to a sophisticated purchaser that it knows is aware or should be aware of the specific danger, and (2) reasonably relies on the purchaser to convey appropriate warnings to downstream users who will encounter the product."4
The first prong of the defense recognizes that "warnings are not required if the intermediary was so sophisticated that it actually knew or reasonably should have known about the potential harm."5 In some cases, several factors may also be considered to determine if it was reasonable for a supplier to rely on the intermediary to pass on warnings to the end user, such as "the gravity of the risks posed by the product, the likelihood that the intermediary will convey the information to the ultimate user, and the feasibility and effectiveness of giving a warning directly to the user."6
Practical realities may also be considered, such as the fact that "a raw material supplier can often do little more than furnish the manufacturer with appropriate warnings and rely on the manufacturer to pass them along."7 Thus, "the infeasibility of direct warnings in the bulk supplier context may weigh in favor of finding it was reasonable for the supplier to rely on an intermediary to warn." (Id.)
In its decision, the Webb Court discussed other defenses that share common principles, such as the "Sophisticated User," "Component Parts" and "Bulk Supplier" doctrines.8 To obtain a copy of the California Supreme Court's decision in Webb, click here.
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For questions regarding this information, please contact one of the authors, a member of Polsinelli’s Toxic & Mass Tort Litigation practice or your Polsinelli attorney.