Smoke detectors are invaluable in saving lives. It is estimated that three-fifths of all deaths from home fires occurred in homes without smoke detectors. But what happens when a smoke detector fails to alert residents of the presence of smoke? Who is responsible for smoke detector failure?
Some courts have held manufacturers strictly liable for damages caused by defective smoke detectors. In one case, a homeowner sued a smoke detector manufacturer alleging that the smoke detector failed to sound a timely alarm, thereby aggravating damages he sustained during a fire in his home. The court determined that the manufacturer could be held strictly liable for the damages because there was evidence that the alarm failure was an unreasonably dangerous defect and that the homeowner should have had an opportunity to offer evidence that the injuries had been made worse by the defective smoke detector. Similarly, another court held that a smoke detector manufacturer had been properly held strictly liable for injuries to two young boys where the plaintiffs provided substantial evidence that the design of the smoke detector was unreasonably dangerous.
Other courts, however, have found that strict liability did not result from smoke detector failure. In one such case, a court held that the plaintiffs, relatives of people who had died in a house fire, failed to prove that the alleged defective design of the smoke detector caused the deaths. The plaintiffs had claimed that the smoke detector was defective because it could not sense smoke from the type of fire that caused the deaths, a slow, smoldering fire. The court held that the manufacturer could not be held liable because the victims failed to leave the premises in a timely manner after hearing the alarm. Likewise, another court refused to hold a smoke detector manufacturer strictly liable for injuries sustained in a fire when an apartment tenant removed the smoke detector’s batteries and failed to replace them. The tenant claimed that the manufacturer was strictly liable because there was no warning on the smoke detector that it did not work without a battery. Rejecting this claim, the court held that the manufacturer was not required to warn that a battery-operated device did not work without a battery.
To prove a strict liability claim against a smoke detector manufacturer, the plaintiff is required to show:
The actions of the plaintiffs in maintaining the smoke detectors and in responding to the alarms can provide a defense for smoke detector manufacturers in product liability actions.
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