The “sophisticated user” defense is often frivolously raised in Louisiana court cases by the manufacturers of dangerous products that seriously injure or kill users. At-fault manufacturers attempt to misuse this defense as a means of escaping liability for the injuries their products cause.
On May 12, 2021, the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal issued an important ruling rejecting Goodyear Tire’s “sophisticated user” defense within the context of a tragic wrongful death case stemming from a dangerous tire.
On February 5, 2014, a Plaquemines Parish government worker died as a result of injuries he sustained when a Goodyear tire exploded while he was attempting to add air to it. The worker’s surviving spouse filed a wrongful death/survival action against Goodyear pursuant to the Louisiana Products Liability Act. The widow alleged that the tire had both a design and manufacturing defect that caused it to explode. She also alleged that Goodyear failed to warn users of the tire of the possibility of a “zipper rupture” – the defect that was determined to have caused the explosion.
After a full trial on the merits, a Louisiana judge found Goodyear liable and awarded the widow and children of the deceased worker $6.7 million. Goodyear appealed claiming that the district court committed an error by not finding that the deceased worker was a “sophisticated user” under Louisiana law. The Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal rejected Goodyear’s “sophisticated user” defense and affirmed the district court ruling that Goodyear’s dangerous tire caused the tragic death.
What Is The “Sophisticated User” Defense?
Louisiana law requires that manufacturers of products provide users with adequate warnings about potential dangers associated with the use of such products. There are two notable exceptions to this general rule. A manufacturer is not required to provide an adequate warning about hazards associated with its product: 1) when the hazard is open and obvious; and 2) when the user of the product is a “sophisticated user.” Thus, if a person injured by a dangerous product is determined to be a “sophisticated user” under Louisiana products liability law, she may not be able to hold the manufacturer accountable for her injuries.
Louisiana courts have defined a “sophisticated user” as “one who is familiar with the product or who possesses more than a general knowledge of the product and how it is used.” Ultimately, it is up to a Louisiana judge or jury to decide whether a user should be classified as “sophisticated” within the context of a trial concerning a dangerous product.
In the recently decided case concerning the Goodyear tire, the appellate court analyzed the deceased worker’s familiarity with the tire. Within the context of his employment with the Plaquemines Parish government, the worker did the following: 1) purchased tires exclusively from Goodyear pursuant to a statewide contract; 2) installed tires on vehicles, and 3) repaired some tires if needed.
Despite such general work with Goodyear tires, the district court and the Louisiana appellate court ultimately decided that the worker was not a “sophisticated user” for purposes of deciding whether Goodyear’s warnings were adequate.
The court pointed to the fact that there was no testimony and/or evidence presented at trial that would suggest that the worker or other Plaquemines Parish workers were knowledgeable of zipper ruptures or of the possibility that the sidewall of a tire could rupture while it was being inflated. The appellate court also pointed to the fact that the parish government entity was composed of an array of 47 different departments, and its business was to generally serve the needs of its citizens and not to repair and perform maintenance on tires.
As a result of the appellate court’s finding, the worker’s family remains entitled to collect the $6.8 million judgment against Goodyear. However, this issue might not yet be over. Goodyear could decide to appeal the ruling to the Louisiana Supreme Court who could have the final say on whether this worker was a “sophisticated user” under Louisiana products liability law.
For over 70 years, the Louisiana law firm of Herman, Herman & Katz has represented the victims of dangerous products. If you or someone you know has been injured as a result of a dangerous product, our experienced Louisiana lawyers can help you navigate the complexities of your potential case. For more information or a free case consultation, contact us online or call us toll-free at 844-943-7626.
Jed Cain is a partner with Herman, Herman & Katz, LLC. He has dedicated his career to representing injured folks and their families.