Lawing v. Trinity Manufacturing, Inc. (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-108-13, 19 pp.) (John C. Few, Ch.J.) Appealed from Oconee County Circuit Court (J.C. Nicholson Jr., J.) S.C. App.
Holding: Reading a package’s warning label is “using” the product; therefore, plaintiff was a user of defendants’ product when he checked the label to decide whether a blowtorch could be used near the product.
We reverse the trial court’s grant of summary judgment for defendants on plaintiff’s strict liability claim. We remand for a new trial on this claim only. We affirm the trial court’s ruling that the sophisticated user doctrine applied in this case.
Sophisticated User Doctrine
Pursuant to the sophisticated user doctrine, a seller may rely on an intermediary to provide warnings to the end-user if that reliance is reasonable under the circumstances. Although the doctrine originated in the context of a claim for negligent failure to warn, it also applies to failure-to-warn causes of action based on breach of an implied warranty.
It is true that federal regulations impose a duty on chemical manufacturers to place certain information and symbols on their labels.
The sophisticated user doctrine does not operate to defeat any duty. It simply identifies circumstances the jury must consider when determining whether the supplier’s duty to warn was breached. The sophisticated user doctrine addresses the factual question of whether it was reasonable for the supplier of a product to rely on the purchaser to warn the end user of the dangers associated with that product. In other words, the doctrine addresses breach of duty, not the existence of duty.
Because the federal regulations require warnings that are “appropriate” under the circumstances, and the sophisticated user doctrine requires only that certain circumstances be considered in determining what is reasonable (or appropriate), there is no conflict between the two, and the sophisticated user doctrine is not preempted.
In this case, there is evidence that defendants Trinity Manufacturing, Inc. and Matrix Outsourcing, LLC knew the nature of plaintiff’s employer’s business, the employer’s understanding of the dangers of sodium bromate, and the steps the employer took to protect employees from the dangers of hazardous materials. A jury could infer from this evidence that Trinity and Matrix acted reasonably in providing warnings on the bags and in the material safety data sheet, relying on the employer to provide its employees any additional warnings about the dangers of sodium bromate. Therefore, evidence in the record supported giving the sophisticated user jury charge.
Even though the trial court gave an incorrect jury charge on the sophisticated user doctrine, this error was not preserved for appellate review.
S.C. Code Ann. § 15-73-10 provides, “One who sells any product in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user or consumer … is subject to liability for physical harm caused to the ultimate user or consumer….”
In enacting § 15-73-10, the General Assembly said that the American Law Institute’s comments to § 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts are “the legislative intent.”
Based on our review of the comments, we believe the legislature intended that the term “user” include persons who could foreseeably come into contact with the dangerous nature of a product. Thus, a person who examines a product for warnings and other safety information is one whom the seller intends will use that information to avoid the dangers associated with the product, and thus is a person who foreseeably could come into contact with its dangerous nature. Such persons enjoy the benefit of the warning by learning how to use the product safely, or by learning that they should avoid the product altogether. They are not casual bystanders, but instead use the product by reading the warning to learn what, if anything, they can safely do with it.
Plaintiff was a user of the sodium bromate. Warnings and other safety information on packaging are part of the product. Manufacturers and suppliers of chemicals and other products not only foresee, but intend, that workers like plaintiff will use the information on the packaging even if they are not actually using the chemical within the packaging.
Affirmed in part; reversed and remanded for a new trial in part.