By: Richard E. Guttentag, Esq. and Alexander S. Beck, Esq., Stearns, Roberts & Guttentag, LLC
Generally, a manufacturer of a product has a duty to warn the user of the product of dangers that are known or reasonably foreseeable to the manufacturer, but are unknown or unforeseeable by the user. While Florida law recognizes claims of negligent and strict liability for failure to warn, it also recognizes a doctrine known as the “sophisticated user” doctrine, which relieves a manufacturer of the duty to warn where there is a sophisticated user of the product with knowledge of the danger. The case of Pike v. Trinity Industries, Inc., 2014 WL 3579625 (M.D.Fla. 2014) recently applied the “sophisticated user” doctrine in analyzing whether a manufacturer of a guardrail system had a duty to warn the Florida Department of Transportation’s (FDOT) that parts from other guardrail systems could not be combined with the manufacturer’s system without compromising the system’s integrity.
In Pike v. Trinity Industries, Inc., the manufacturer’s guardrail system was sold to the state of Florida and installed in Lake County, Florida in 2007. In addition to the manufacturer’s installation, maintenance and repair instructions provided to the FDOT, the manufacturer conducted a training session for FDOT maintenance employees. In addition, the FDOT trains its employees about guardrail installation, inspection and maintenance, and guardrail repairs are supervised and inspected by FDOT.
In 2009, the guardrail was impacted as a result of an automobile accident. Following the 2009 accident, and contrary to all of the manufacturer and FDOT’s training materials and instructions, the FDOT repaired the guardrail with a random collection of parts from its warehouse. In 2010, the Plaintiff was in a truck that went off the road and struck the same guardrail. Because the guardrail was not repaired using the manufacturer’s parts for its guardrail system, the guardrail entered the truck, severely injuring the Plaintiff. The Plaintiff sued the manufacturer for negligence and strict liability based on the failure to warn, alleging that the manufacturer failed to warn the FDOT that parts from other guardrail systems could not be combined with the manufacturer’s guardrail system without compromising the system’s integrity.
The Court determined that the manufacturer did not have a duty to warn the FDOT what it already knew – that it should avoid using parts from other guardrail systems when repairing the guardrail. The Court applied the “sophisticated user” doctrine, which relieves a manufacturer of the duty to warn where there is a sophisticated user or learned intermediary with knowledge of the hazard. The rationale behind the sophisticated user doctrine is that a manufacturer should be able to presume mastery of basic operations by experts or skilled professionals in an industry, and should not owe a duty to warn or instruct such persons on how to perform basic operations in their industry.
The Court reasoned that the issue in this case was not the engineering and construction of the guardrail system, but the repair and maintenance of the system, which the FDOT handled exclusively. Whether the manufacturer has a duty to warn a customer cannot depend on whether that customer fully trains and supervises its entire staff. Here, the FDOT had created an entire set of training materials devoted to maintaining, repairing and inspecting guardrails, and it was undisputed that FDOT was responsible for maintaining the guardrail systems so they functioned correctly. Consequently, the Court concluded that the FDOT was experienced in guardrail maintenance, repair and inspection, and understood that repairs be made in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. Thus, the Court held that the FDOT was a sophisticated user of the guardrail system, and therefore the manufacturer had no duty to warn the FDOT that it should avoid using parts from other guardrail systems when repairing the manufacturer’s system. Accordingly, the Court entered a judgment in favor of the manufacturer and dismissed the Plaintiff’s failure to warn claims.
This case demonstrates that while Florida law recognizes claims of negligent and strict liability for failure to warn, it also recognizes that a manufacturer is relieved of its duty to warn where the user of the product is a sophisticated user with knowledge of the hazard.
About the Authors: Richard E. Guttentag is a partner with Stearns, Roberts & Guttentag, LLC, and is Board Certified in Construction Law by the Florida Bar. Mr. Guttentag exclusively in construction law including construction lien claims and defense, payment and performance bond claims and defense, bid protests, construction contract preparation and negotiation, and construction and design defect claims and defense. He can be reached for consultation at [email protected]. Alexander S. Beck is an associate with Stearns, Roberts & Guttentag, LLC. Mr. Beck in construction law including construction lien claims, payment and performance bond claims, bid protests, construction contract preparation, and construction and design defect claims He can be reached for consultation at [email protected]