Sophisticated User Doctrine Under N.Y. State Law

Author:Mr Brian Heermance
Profession:Morrison Mahoney

Originally published in New York Law Journal, , June, 2007

Manufacturers in products liability litigation have traditionally been held to a strict standard with respect to the duty to warn users of hazards associated with their products.

Under New York State Law, a manufacturer has historically been under a duty to warn of known hazards associated with the use of products without significant limitations.

However, a recent decision from the Supreme Court, Cattaraugus County, has applied the "sophisticated user" doctrine to limit the liability of manufacturers in cases where the ultimate user of the product possesses sufficient knowledge of the product so as to be aware of the hazard as a matter of law.

The "sophisticated user" doctrine is entrenched in federal case law, and the Rickicki Rickicki v. Borden Chemicals (53395, Decided Jan. 11, 2007, Supreme Court) decision may represent a willingness to incorporate it into New York State law.

On that date, in Buffalo, 16 years of silica litigation came to a close in a New York case and a companion case when a justice granted the defendants' motions for summary judgment, finding that the plaintiffs' employer was better positioned than they were to warn them about the hazards of silica exposure (David P. Rickicki and Patricia Rickicki v. Borden Chemical, et al., No. 53395; Michael C. Crowley and Sharon M. Crowley v. C-E Minerals, Inc., et al., No. 61024, N.Y. Sup., Cattaraugus Co.)

Origins of the Doctrine

The sophisticated user doctrine was highlighted in a 1988 article in the Virginia Law Review, which concluded that a manufacturer should be deemed to have fulfilled its obligation to warn by ensuring that the next entity in the chain of distribution knows or should know of a potential hazard associated with the use of a product. See "Failure to Warn and the Sophisticated User Defense," 74 Va. L. Rev. 579 (April 1988).

The rationale behind the concept is that product manufacturers are not typically in the best position to warn the ultimate user of potential hazards. Thus, according to the article, the responsibility to warn of hazards should flow down the chain of distribution to the retailer of the product or, depending on his level of knowledge and training, the user of the product.

Several Federal Court opinions recognized the sophisticated user doctrine as a viable defense for product manufacturers as early as the 1990s, but New York State courts have historically been reluctant to extend...

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