Parker Argues to California Supreme Court; Issue is Whether to Adopt the "Sophisticated Purchaser" Defense

Posted on Monday, 07 March 2016

On March 1, 2016, HP partner James Parker presented oral argument before the California Supreme in a case which will determine whether, and under what conditions, the "sophisticated purchaser" defense will be adopted in California.

The defense has been adopted by about half the jurisdictions in the United States and negates the general duty of a supplier or manufacturer to warn of the potential dangers of a product when sold or supplied to a sophisticated purchaser or intermediary.  In 2008 the California Supreme Court adopted for the first time the related "sophisticated user" defense, which negates the duty to warn when the product is supplied to a consumer or employee who knows or should know of the product’s hazards.  Like the sophisticated user defense, the sophisticated purchaser defense finds its roots in the Restatement Second, Torts section 388.
While never formally adopted in California, it has been recognized by several lower courts, which have not agreed on the elements of the defense.  

Court observers believe that the Supreme Court will make a ruling adopting the defense, but in what form and under what conditions is not clear.  The Court is expected to announce a ruling before the end of May 2016.

The case arose out of plaintiff William Webb’s claim that while employed by a Los Angeles plumbing supply company, he worked around asbestos-containing transite flu vent pipe manufactured by Johns-Manville at its Long Beach plant, and contracted pleural mesothelioma as a result.  HP client Special Electric was a broker that in the mid- to late-1970s supplied some of the crocidolite to J-M that found its way into the pipe that may have reached Mr. Webb.  The jury returned a verdict for the Webbs, but Parker convinced the trial judge to grant a nonsuit and directed verdict on the grounds that his client could not have warned a remote consumer like Mr. Webb, and that Johns Manville was knowledgeable about asbestos and had a duty to warn arising from both federal regulations and tort law.  Finding procedural errors and disagreeing that the defense would apply, the Court of Appeal, Second District, reversed 2-1, with Justice Rothschild issuing a vigorous dissent.  Parker petitioned to the Supreme Court which accepted review in 2013.

Supreme Court Case No:  S209927; William Webb and Jacqueline Webb v. Special Electric, Inc., et al.

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