Our firm recently settled an Alabama case involving the failure of a smoke detector in a house fire that occurred on Nov. 28, 2011. Three young children: 4-year-old twins, and a 1-year-old girl, died during the fire as a result of inhaling toxic smoke, chemicals and carbon monoxide. The claim was brought against Walter Kidde and United Technologies Corporation, among others, as a result of the ionization smoke detector in the house failing to alarm.
Lawyers in our firm have handled cases of this sort in the past and will continue to handle them in the future. It’s most unfortunate that the manufacturers of ionization detectors have known for more than 30 years that a standalone ionization smoke detector is not adequate to protect a home involving a slow growth or slow smoldering fire. Testing reveals that ionization smoke detectors do not even detect smoke. They detect submicron particles, which may or may not be in sufficient quantity in certain types of smoke.
Smoldering fires tend to put off larger and cooler particles that may not set off an ionization detector even if the particles reach the detection chamber. Ionization detectors are also dangerous because they lull people into a false sense of security. An ionization detector is often the detector that goes off when someone opens an oven door or burns toast. In such cases, there may be no visible smoke whatsoever. The sad truth is that folks who have these types of detectors assume that if their detector sounds in the absence of smoke, that it would certainly go off in a fire. That is a terrible misconception.
Another problem with the ionization design is that a person who has a battery operated detector may actually take the battery out to prevent nuisance alarms. This obviously can result in a dangerous and hazardous condition. The detector housings are made out of plastic so that when the fire does flame up and spread, the evidence is destroyed. The detector melts and burns. It may be impossible to determine the manufacturer of the detector or even whether there was a detector actually in the home.
There has been an alternative technology that makes the home much safer from smoldering fires. That’s the photo electric design, which does sense the presence of smoke. This technology has been around for years and has been proved to be effective. In our case, there was sufficient evidence to trace the detector to Walter F. Kidde, the largest manufacturer of smoke alarms in the world. Our client’s home was equipped with a hard-wired standalone ionization detector, which is inadequate for a smoldering fire. There was evidence that the fire may have burned for as long as 30 minutes without the alarm sounding. Numerous witnesses, including three different people who went into the apartment trying to rescue the children, testified they never heard an alarm sound.
Needless deaths, like those in this case, will continue until the manufacturers of these devices are forced to move away from standalone ionization detectors. There are currently dual detectors on the market, which have both photoelectric and ionization sensing in the same smoke detector. Photoelectric detectors are extremely good at detecting smoldering fires. Photoelectric detectors may be slightly delayed with a fast flaming fire from ionization detectors, but you are only talking about a delay of seconds. On the other hand, on the slow smoldering fire, the ionization detector may delay from 30 minutes to an hour or it many never sound.
Interestingly, there are states such as Vermont that do not allow new buildings to be sold with ionization detectors being the only device. New homes must have at least a photoelectric-type smoke detector in the home. There are certain cities around the country, including Boston and Cincinnati, that do not allow standalone ionization detectors. The U.S. is slowly waking up to the problem, but it is taking far too long for those in authority to do something about it. Folks are dying as a result of these detectors not functioning properly.
Some of the most damaging evidence in our case came from witnesses, who are experts in the field, but were not paid consulting experts for us in the case. Two of these witnesses were going to travel all the way from Australia to testify for us in the case as fact witnesses. One was Adrian Butler, a consumer advocate, who at one time was in the business of selling smoke detectors. Mr. Butler discovered that the ionization detectors did not work properly and he is extremely concerned about the hazards they present.
Also, David Isaac, a former employee of one of the United Technologies Corporation’s Australian subsidiaries that sells ionization smoke alarms, was going to testify as a witness for us. Mr. Isaac was asked by his company to sit on the committee whose purpose was to keep a separate standard in place for ionization detectors. That standard allowed the ionization design to pass a test, but significantly it was not a smoke test!
The photoelectric was required to pass a smoke test in Australia, but the ionization detector was allowed to pass a mic-x test. The mic-x test had nothing to do with smoke detection. While he was a member of the FP-2 committee, Mr. Isaac learned that the ionization detectors were unsafe and that his company was selling a dangerous product that created a serious hazard. Rather than following the company line, and doing what needed to be done to protect the industry, Mr. Isaac started a campaign within the company to try and eliminate this dangerous design from its product line. While this man, who was concerned about safety, was not successful in doing that, he was successful in helping to set new standards for Australia.
In addition, Dean Dennis, from Ohio, lost his daughter in a fire as a result of an ionization detector failing. Mr. Dennis is a self-taught expert and is very knowledgeable with respect to the dangers of the ionization smoke detectors. His goal is to save lives of unsuspecting persons. Mr. Dennis was also going to testify for us at trial.
Our lawyers, in developing this case, also discovered Russell Ashe, who was willing to come and spend his time testifying as a fact witness. Mr. Ashe, a fire fighter in Vermont, was called to a fire scene several years ago where four innocent family members perished with only the father surviving. This gentleman lost his wife, son and three daughters because of the numerous ionization detectors in the home failing to sound an alarm.
Because of what happened in that fire, and wanting to make a difference, Mr. Ashe wrote a book titled, “The Fire That Changed Everything.” (L. Brown and Sons, Printing, 2010). He was instrumental in having the Vermont law passed that has, without any doubt, saved lives. The governor of Vermont actually signed the bill into law in Mr. Ashe’s home.
The smoke detector industry would like to have these four men simply go away. Fortunately, that will not happen until the industry changes its ways. These are brave individuals who are willing and able to take on this industry in an effort to try and save lives. They were ready to testify for us in our case and wanted to get the word out that ionization smoke alarms do not provide adequate fire protection. They are to be commended for their concern and willingness to help others.
Prior to the trial date, the case settled for a confidential amount. This case was handled by LaBarron Boone, Stephanie Monplaisir, and Greg Allen from our firm, along with Myron Penn and Shane Seaborn of the Penn & Seaborn Firm, located in Clayton and Union Springs, Ala., and Walter McGowan, a lawyer from Tuskegee, Ala. We also appreciate very much Richard Taylor, a Mobile, Ala., lawyer, for his assistance in this case. Richard provided us with valuable information from his prior smoke detector cases.
Greg has handled previous cases involving smoke detectors, which gave us an advantage in the investigation and preparation of this case. The case was pending before Circuit Judge Burt Smithart in Bullock County, Ala. Judge Smithart, who handled this case in his usual effective style, is well-respected by both sides of the bar.
Unfortunately, we are well aware that this will not be our last case against the ionization smoke detector manufacturers. But they may change their ways and change over to the detectors actually work. If that happens, lives will be saved and that would be great news for us. We would know that our lawyers have made a difference!
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