Products Liability Law Daily Learned intermediary, sophisticated user defenses not available in plane crash case
Friday, January 22, 2021

Learned intermediary, sophisticated user defenses not available in plane crash case

By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.

The companies that manufactured and installed a STOL kit on a small aircraft could not assert the learned intermediary defense to counter warning defect claims or the sophisticated user defense to counter design and manufacturing defect claims.

Two companies responsible for the manufacture and installation of a short takeoff and landing (STOL) kit on a small aircraft could not assert the sophisticated user defense, which applied only in the context of failure to warn claims, nor the learned intermediary defense, which applied only in the drug manufacturer/physician context, in response to design and manufacturing defect claims asserted in an action concerning the cause of the plane’s crash, the federal district court in Alaska ruled (Specter v. Texas Turbine Conversions, Inc., January 21, 2021, Burgess, T.).

In April 2014, Recon Air Corporation (RAC) installed a STOL kit on a De Havilland DHC-3 "Otter" airplane owned and operated by Rainbow King Lodge, Inc. The STOL kit was manufactured by Texas Turbine Conversions, Inc. (TTC). In September 2015, the plane crashed shortly after takeoff, killing one passenger in the accident. The estate of the decedent and a surviving passenger (collectively, the passengers) sued RAC and TTC (collectively, the manufacturers) in September 2017. The passengers alleged that the plane was unreasonably dangerous as a result of the design and installation of the STOL kit modification, and that this caused the pilot to lose control of the plane. In July 2020, TTC filed a motion for summary judgment on select "raised-but-not-argued-claims," which RAC joined. The district court denied the motion in part, explaining that the manufacturers had erroneously relied on non-Alaskan law in making their arguments opposing the passenger’s allegations concerning the existence of a safer alternative design and a manufacturing defect [see Products Liability Law Daily’s December 18, 2020 analysis]. Before the court was the passenger’s motion for partial summary judgment on the manufacturers’ learned intermediary and sophisticated user defense.

Sophisticated user defense. The sophisticated or "knowledgeable" user defense applies when the consumer of the product is sophisticated in its use, has special knowledge, or is as aware of the dangers as the manufacturer. It does not require a user’s actual awareness of potential hazards but instead provides that a product manufacturer or supplier is not liable for failing to warn a sophisticated user if the user knew or should have known of the product’s risk in light of his training or skill. Both the passengers and the manufacturers agreed that the defense applied only to failure to warn claims in products liability actions. Thus, to the extent the manufacturers sought to assert the defense outside the failure to warn context, the court was compelled to grant the passengers’ motion for summary judgment.

Learned intermediary doctrine. Under the learned intermediary doctrine, a product manufacturer’s duty to warn the ultimate consumer about known risks in using a product was met, in certain circumstances, by warning a learned intermediary. The most common application of this defense, and the only one adopted by the Alaska courts, provided that a drug manufacturer’s duty to warn ran to the physician only, not to the patient, and the prescribing physician was treated as the ultimate consumer. The manufacturers urged the district court to expand the learned intermediary defense to the aircraft parts manufacturer/pilot relationship, arguing that like a physician who was in a better position to thoroughly understand the directions and warnings from a drug maker, a pilot was in a better-if not the only-position to understand and adhere to the instructions and warnings in the Airplane Flight Manual Supplement, which had been provided to purchasers of the aircraft at issue. The passengers countered that there were no issues of material fact regarding the applicability of the defense because the manufacturer had offered no relevant warnings.

The district court declined the manufacturer’s proposed expansion of the defense, noting that since its adoption nearly 30 years earlier, the Alaskan courts have not expanded the learned intermediary doctrine and it appeared to the district court that other federal courts have applied the defense only infrequently in aircraft parts manufacturer/pilot context, which was an expansion typically undertaken by state courts or legislatures. The district court also distinguished the case at bar from the California precedent cited by the manufacturers as a basis for expanding the defense. In the California case, the plaintiffs had argued that warnings should have been posted in the passenger compartment whereas in the present case, the passengers argued that the manufacturers should have offered certain warnings to the pilot, not the passenger. Thus, the precedent was not applicable to the facts in this case.

Furthermore, the rationale behind the current application of the defense, which was a presumption that the physician would use his or her own expertise and judgment to determine whether to prescribe the product and to filter the information, as well as to determine which warning should be provided to the patient, was not applicable in the case at bar. The passengers had not argued that the pilot would have or should have told passengers about which flaps he planned to use on takeoff or would have or should have warned them about the alleged tendency for the plane to roll right, nor did they argue that the passengers would have changed their minds about whether to fly on the aircraft based on that information. Thus, the learning intermediary defense did not apply to the facts of the case and summary judgment excluding the defense was appropriate.

The case is No. 3:17-cv-00194-TMB.

Attorneys: Alisa R. Brodkowitz (Schroeter Goldmark Bender) for Jolyn L. Specter, David W. Wood, Jr., and Marianne Wood. John B. Thorsness (Clapp, Peterson, Tiemessen, Thorsness & Johnson, LLC) for Texas Turbine Conversions, Inc. Gary A. Zipkin (Guess & Rudd PC) for Recon Air Corp.

Companies: Texas Turbine Conversions, Inc.; Recon Air Corp.

MainStory: TopStory DefensesLiabilityNews WarningsNews AircraftWatercraftNews AlaskaNews

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