Share this e-Alert:

Polsinelli - Toxic and Mass Tort Polsinelli - Toxic and Mass Tort

June 2016


California Supreme Court Adopts the Sophisticated Intermediary Defense


For more information about this e-Alert, please contact:


David K. Schultz


Email | Bio



To learn more about our Toxic and Mass Tort practice, to contact one of our Toxic and Mass Tort attorneys, or for more Toxic and Mass Tort Intelligence, click here.



View Polsinelli documents on JD Supra  


LinkedIn Twitter Facebook Polsinelli Podcast

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.

For More Information

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.



1 2016 WL 2956882 (May 23, 2016)
2 2016 WL 2956882, at *1
3 2016 WL 2956882, at *1
4 2016 WL 2956882, at *9
5 2016 WL 2956882, at *10
6 2016 WL 2956882, at *8
7 2016 WL 2956882, at *12
8 2016 WL 2956882, at *5-7



Atlanta  Boston  Chattanooga  Chicago  Dallas  Denver  Houston  Kansas City  Los Angeles  Nashville  New York
Overland Park  Phoenix  Raleigh  St. Joseph  St. Louis  San Francisco  Washington, D.C.  Wilmington



real challenges. real answers.SM  
Polsinelli is an Am Law 100 firm with more than 800 attorneys in 19 offices, serving corporations, institutions, and entrepreneurs nationally. Ranked in the top five percent of law firms for client service*, the firm has risen more than 50 spots over the past five years in the Am Law 100 annual law firm ranking. Polsinelli attorneys provide practical legal counsel infused with business insight, and focus on health care, financial services, real estate, intellectual property, mid-market corporate, and business litigation. Polsinelli attorneys have depth of experience in 100 service areas and 70 industries. The firm can be found online at Polsinelli PC. In California, Polsinelli LLP.

* 2016 BTI Client Service A-Team Report


Polsinelli provides this material for informational purposes only. The material provided herein is general and is not intended to be legal advice. Polsinelli is very proud of the results we obtain for our clients, but you should know that past results do not guarantee future results; that every case is different and must be judged on its own merits; and that the choice of a lawyer is an important decision and should not be based solely upon advertisements.

Copyright © 2016 Polsinelli PC.

Connect with us on LinkedIn. Connection with us on Twitter. Connect with us on Facebook. Polsinelli Toxic and Mass Tort Toxic and Mass Tort