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From Products Liability Law Daily, December 23, 2013

Maintenance worker was not a sophisticated user of power drill; jury must resolve adequacy of warnings issues

By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.

A manufacturer of a power drill failed to establish that a maintenance worker was a sophisticated user of the drill, and, therefore, a trial court’s grant of a new trial following a jury verdict in favor of the manufacturer was proper, a California court of appeals determined. The appeals court also determined that whether the manufacturer’s warnings were adequate and whether the alleged failure to warn was the legal cause of the worker’s injuries were questions to be resolved by the jury (Buckner v. Milwaukee Electric Tool Corp., December 20, 2013, Hill, B.).

Background. A maintenance worker, Kevin Buckner, was using a power drill manufactured by Milwaukee Electric Tool Corporation to drill a hole in a piece of angle iron when the drill bit bound and the drill counter rotated, twisting his arm and causing serious injuries. He filed a products liability action against the manufacturer, alleging negligence and strict products liability claims. In response to the worker’s allegations of failure to warn, the manufacturer asserted that the worker was a sophisticated user of the drill and that any failure to warn was not a legal cause of the worker’s injuries because he already knew or should have known of the dangers involved in using the drill. The jury determined that the drill was not negligently or defectively designed but it did not determine whether there was a failure to warn or inadequate warnings because it found that the worker was a sophisticated user. The trial court granted the worker’s motion for a new trial on this issue and the manufacturer appealed.

Sophisticated user defense. The sophisticated user defense was recognized by the California Supreme Court in Johnson v. American Standard Inc.(2008) 43 Cal.4th 56, as a natural outgrowth of California’s obvious danger rule and applied to both negligence and strict liability causes of action. The focus of the defense is “whether the danger in question was so generally known within the trade or profession that a manufacturer should not have been expected to provide a warning specific to the group to which plaintiff belonged.” To establish the defense, the manufacturer must identify the relevant risk, show that sophisticated users already were aware of the risk, and demonstrate that the plaintiff was a member of the group of sophisticated users. In this case, the parties disagreed as to the definition of the relevant risk and the scope of knowledge of the risk the group of users must possess to be considered sophisticated users. The manufacturer claimed that the group need only know of the relevant danger which was the possibility that the drill bit would bind or stop, causing the drill to counter rotate and twist the user’s arm. The worker countered that the danger of which the group of sophisticated users was required to have knowledge was that the drill was unsafe when used without a side handle, also known as an anti-torque bar.

Explaining that the scope of knowledge of the sophisticated user must parallel the scope of the warning that would otherwise be required, the court found the manufacturer’s argument too narrow. The court stated that in order to establish the defense the manufacturer must demonstrate that: (1) sophisticated users knew there was a danger that the drill could bind and counter rotate; and (2) this could cause serious injury to the user, and that the risk could be reduced or eliminated by proper use of the side handle. The worker in this case was a maintenance man with a history of being a handyman in residential construction. He was not a licensed contractor and he had no formal training in tool safety. There was no evidence that drills with similar torque to the one used by the worker were commonly used in this type of work. The worker testified that he had never used a drill with the same power level as the one he was using at the time of the accident. Two co-workers testified that there were unaware that the drill had a side handle or needed one. Finally, an expert with years of experience in construction testified that he was unaware if it was unsafe to use the drill without a side handle. Based on this evidence, the appeals court concluded that the manufacturer failed to demonstrate that no reasonable fact finder could have concluded that the worker was not a sophisticated user, and, therefore, the trial court was justified in granting a new trial on this issue.

Adequacy of warning. The manufacturer also argued that even if the sophisticated user defense did not apply, the worker could not establish that any failure to warn caused his injuries. Because the jury had found that the worker was a sophisticated user of the drill, it did not reach the questions of whether the manufacturer failed to provide adequate warning of the risks of the drill and whether any such failure to warn was a substantial factor in causing the worker’s injury. Adequacy of warnings and causation issues were questions of fact and conflicting evidence was presented to the jury. The appeals court could not say, as a matter of law, that if the jury had found the worker was not a sophisticated user of the drill, the worker would have been unable to prove causation. Thus, there was adequate support for the trial court’s determination that a new trial on this issue was warranted.

The case number is F065140.

Attorneys: Barbrae A. Lundberg (Fitzgerald, Lundberg & Romig) for Kevin Buckner. Arthur James Casey (Robinson & Wood) for Milwaukee Electric Tool Corp.

Companies: Milwaukee Electric Tool Corp.

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