California Supreme Court Issues Opinion on Sophisticated Intermediary Doctrine in Webb vs. Special Electric
By: Cohen, Placitella & Roth @ Jun 07, 2016
Webb vs. Special Electric tells the story of plaintiff William Webb, who alleged that he would not have developed mesothelioma but for his exposure to asbestos during his working years. From 1969 through the late 1970s, Webb regularly handled Transite pipe as a result of his employment at Pyramid Pipe & Supply. The asbestos-containing piping product was manufactured by Johns-Manville, and the asbestos that the piping contained was supplied to it by Special Electric. It is estimated that Special Electric supplied Johns-Manville will approximately 7,000 tons of crocidolite, a particularly dangerous type of asbestos, between the 1970s-1980s.
Webb sued Special Electric, claiming negligence and strict liability on the basis that that Special Electric failed to warn Webb of the risks and dangers associated with handling asbestos, of which it was aware, and of which Webb was not.
Special Electric Denies Liability
Special Electric denied liability, claiming that Johns-Manville was the company’s only relevant customer, and that the latter, as “one of the most sophisticated companies in the U.S.” in terms of asbestos-related products, was considered a “sophisticated user.” The sophisticated user doctrine states that a manufacturer is absolved of liability in the event that the user is one who knew or should have known about the dangers associated with using a product based on their expertise. In other words, Special Electric claimed that it was not liable for Webb’s harm because Johns-Manville was a learned intermediary, and that it had no duty to warn (of the dangers related to asbestos).
But the jury over the case disagreed, and apportioned 18 percent fault to Special Electric, and 49 percent fault to Johns-Manville. However, Special Electric filed a motion to the trial judge to have the verdict thrown out, based on the idea that “it is not a tort to fail to tell someone something they already know.”
The California Supreme Court Takes the Case
The Law Office of Ted W. Pelletier acted as representation for plaintiffs and appellants. Ted Pelletier was successful in convincing the California Supreme Court, which granted review of the decision to throw out the jury verdict, that the defendant (Special Electric) bears the burden of proof and must show that it warned the intermediary (Johns-Manville) about the products’ hazards, or that the intermediary was so sophisticated that no warning was necessary and that it reasonably relied on the intermediary to pass along the (asbestos) warnings to the user (Mr. Webb). The court found that Special Electric could not demonstrate these showings necessary to absolve itself of blame, and was therefore liable.
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