Products Liability Law Daily Dual-sensor smoke alarm not an alternative design for a single-sensor alarm
Monday, August 22, 2016

Dual-sensor smoke alarm not an alternative design for a single-sensor alarm

By John W. Scanlan, J.D.

A single-sensor ionization smoke alarm was not defective due to the lack of a second sensor using different technology because such a design would have been a different product, the Alabama Supreme Court held in affirming summary judgment to the manufacturer on a claim brought under the Alabama Extended Manufacturer's Liability Doctrine (AEMLD). As the parties had agreed that this issue was dispositive, the court did not consider the remainder of the trial court’s judgments in favor of the manufacturer (Hosford v. BRK Brands, Inc., August 19, 2016, Stuart, L.).

The four-year old died in a mobile home fire that began with a faulty electrical outlet in the child’s bedroom. Her parents were wakened by two smoke alarms and were able to escape with another child but could not rescue her. The parents brought claims for breach of warranty, failure to warn, negligence, and wantonness, as well as a product liability claim under the AEMLD, against BRK Brands, Inc., which manufactured the smoke alarms. They alleged that the smoke alarms were defective and unreasonably dangerous because they relied only on ionization technology and that this technology does not give sufficient warning in situations involving a slow, smoldering fire. Smoke alarms using photoelectric technology are more sensitive in these situations but less sensitive to smoke from flaming fires. They argued that a safer, practical alternative design for the alarm at issue was a dual-sensor smoke alarm incorporating both technologies, and that BRK itself manufactures them (at a higher price).

After the close of discovery, the court granted BRK summary judgment on the breach of warranty claims and, following the presentation of the parents’ case, on all remaining claims except the AEMLD claim. This claim went to the jury, which found in favor of BRK. The parents filed three appeals, which were consolidated.

AEMLD/alternative design. The manufacturer was entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the AEMLD claim because the parents did not establish the existence of a safer, practical alternative design for the smoke alarms at issue, with the state high court noting that their theory was that it was impossible for a single-sensor ionization alarm to be safe. The dual-sensor smoke alarm design proposed by the parents was not an alternative design for the single-sensor smoke ionization alarm they purchased; instead, it was a design for a different product, even if it would serve the same purpose. Their expert acknowledged that ionization alarms save lives, and while the mother argued that a dual-sensor alarm would have saved the child’s life in this situation, such an alarm would have been more expensive. The father’s testimony about whether he could have afforded a more expensive alarm raised the possibility that the absence of single-sensor ionization alarms from the market would have resulted in no alarm being present in their home that night and, possibly, more fatalities.

The cases are Nos. 1140899 and 1140901.

Attorneys: Max Cassady (Cassady & Cassady PC) and Richard H. Taylor (Taylor Martino, Attorneys at Law) for Latosha Hosford and Rhonda Hosford. Jillian Flax (Cozen O’Conner) and Anna Manasco (Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP) for BRK Brands, Inc.

Companies: BRK Brands, Inc.

MainStory: TopStory DesignManufacturingNews WarningsNews HouseholdProductsNews AlabamaNews

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