Manufacturer's Duty to Warn
In California, manufacturers and suppliers of all products have a duty to warn of known or reasonably knowable dangers. ( Carlin v. Superior Court (1996) 13 Cal.4th 1104, 1108-1109, 920 P.2d 1347.)
In certain limited circumstances, California courts have held that a manufacturer or supplier has no duty to warn the ultimate users of its products provided adequate warnings are given to an intermediary.
For example, a drug manufacturer has no duty to warn the ultimate consumer, the patient, provided that the manufacturer gave adequate warnings to the doctor. ( Carmichael v. Reitz (1971) 17 Cal. App. 3d 958, 994, 95 Cal. Rptr. 381.)
Similarly, an aircraft manufacturer had no duty to warn passengers as to load capacity so long as appropriate warnings were provided to the pilot in the owner's manual. ( Stevens v. Cessna Aircraft Co. (1981) 115 Cal. App. 3d 431, 433, 170 Cal. Rptr. 925.)
In the case of a manufacturer supplying a bulk chemical ingredient to a distributor that subsequently compounded, packaged and marketed an item to the ultimate consumer, the manufacturer did not have a duty to warn the ultimate consumer because when it supplied the product to the distributor, the product was accompanied by adequate warnings. ( Groll v. Shell Oil Co. (1983) 148 Cal. App. 3d 444, 448-449, 196 Cal. Rptr. 52.)
Finally, the distributor and wholly owned subsidiary of the manufacturer of ski equipment that had adequately warned a rental ski shop, was not liable for failure to warn the injured skier of the incompatibility between manufacturer's bindings and certain ski boots. ( Persons v. Salomon North America, Inc. (1990) 217 Cal. App. 3d 168, 170-172, 175-178, 265 Cal. Rptr. 773.)
In the cases cited above, the circumstances led the courts to conclude that the manufacturer's duty to warn the ultimate user was satisfied by the manufacturer's warning to the intermediary. In none of those cases was the manufacturer absolved of any duty to warn merely because of the intermediary's knowledge or sophistication.
Many California courts have adopted in product liability cases the Restatement Second of Torts approach concerning a manufacturer's duty to advise the ultimate user. (Rest.2d, Torts, 388; Stevens v. Parke, Davis & Co. (1973) 9 Cal.3d 51, 64-65, 107 Cal. Rptr. 45, 507 P.2d 653; Tingey v. E.F. Houghton & Co. (1947) 30 Cal.2d 97, 102, 179 P.2d 807.)
These courts utilize the Restatement approach to determine the circumstances in which the manufacturer's duty may be discharged by an adequate warning to an intermediary. (Rest.2d, Torts, 388, comm. N; Torres v. Xomox Corp. (1996) 49 Cal.App.4th 1, 21 "warnings to distributors may be sufficient if a manufacturer does not deal directly with the purchasers of its products"; Schwoerer v. Union Oil Co. (1993) 14 Cal.App.4th 103, 110-111 "where adequate warnings have been passed along from manufacturer or seller to the ultimate consumer, there can be no liability"; Persons v. Salomon North America, Inc., supra, 217 Cal. App. 3d at pp. 171-172.)
The Restatement approach focuses upon whether, in light of all the circumstances, a manufacturer or supplier acted reasonably in relying upon an intermediary to pass its adequate warnings on to the ultimate user. (Rest.2d, Torts, 388, comm. N; Rest.3d, Torts: Product Liability, 2, com. I.)
Courts in other jurisdictions have found in favor of defendant manufacturers and suppliers, as a matter of law, in cases where adequate warnings were issued because reasonable minds could not differ on the question whether the defendants reasonably relied on an employer to warn its employees.
Washington v. Department of Transp. (5th Cir.1993) 8 F.3d 296, 301 where manufacturer issued adequate warning, and employee's supervisor knew of specific danger resulting in injury to the worker, but failed to relay information, manufacturer owed no duty to provide warning to employee;
Adams v. Union Carbide Corp. (6th Cir.1984) 737 F.2d 1453, 1456-1458 bulk supplier and manufacturer discharged duty to warn as a matter of law by adequately warning employer and reasonably relied on the employer to convey the warnings to employees; where employer transferred chemical from trucks or rail cars into storage tanks and then pumped it into the building;
Baker v. Monsanto Co. (S.D.Ind. 1997) 962 F. Supp. 1143, 1159-1160 where employer purchased products in 55-gallon barrels that bore adequate warning labels; employee never saw those barrels; and employer was a knowledgeable purchaser; manufacturer reasonably relied on employer to warn its employees;
Torres v. National Starch and Chemical Corp. (D.P.R.1995) 896 F. Supp. 71, 73-75 manufacturer provided adequate safety information stating hazards to employer and labeled bottles with explicit warnings; manufacturer reasonably relied on employer to warn its employees as a matter of law;
Mascarenas v. Union Carbide Corp. (1992) 196 Mich. App. 240 492 N.W.2d 512, 515-516 as a matter of law, when "necessary information" is provided where purchaser was a sophisticated user of solvents, products were supplied in bulk, and employer supplied solvents to employees in gasoline cans, defendants reasonably relied on employer to warn employees;
Cohen v. Steve's Ice Cream (D.Mass.1990) 737 F. Supp. 8, 9 intervening conduct of employer that removed product from properly labeled 55-gallon drum and put it in an unmarked container was the sole cause as a matter of law of injury that occurred when container leaked;
Whitehead v. Dycho Co., Inc. (Tenn.1989) 775 S.W.2d 593, 598-600 as a matter of law, manufacturers and distributors of naphtha, who provided adequate warnings in material data safety sheets and on drum labels, reasonably relied on knowledgeable employer to convey warnings to employees to whom chemicals were supplied in small unlabeled containers and workers never saw 55-gallon containers;
Younger v. Dow Corning Corporation (1969) 202 Kan. 674 451 P.2d 177, 184 manufacturer of chemical compounds that adequately warned industrial user "had every right to anticipate" employer would pass on warnings to employees and would take proper precautions; defendant had no additional duty to warn employees.)