In the United States Court of Appeals in Ohio, a case was tried where after a fire at a house claimed the life of a female occupant, her husband brought a wrongful death suit against the companies that provided the couple with alarm services, claiming negligence and gross negligence.

The deceased occupant contracted with an alarm company to provide home security services through a package. Included in the package was one free smoke detector, which was installed and linked remotely to a monitoring center and could inform the company of different information such as the outbreak of a fire.

At the time of the installation, the household had only one working smoke detector, which was in the hallway outside the bedrooms. The husband, who was out of town at the time, remembers seeing that the old smoke detector had been removed when he returned home. After the new smoke detector was installed, the company his wife originally contracted with was acquired by another company, a fact which was not disputed.

In June 2017, the new company began to receive a series of signals from the smoke detector, indicating that the device had a low battery. When the company received such a signal, it notified the wife about the low battery by sending her an email and a text message, as well as calling her on the phone. The company sent her a replacement battery and also called her, speaking with her directly, to set up the appointment. That appointment never took place, however; on the scheduled day, she cancelled via text.

The company continued to receive signals at various intervals concerning the smoke detector’s low battery in the months that followed. The company had contacted the wife on 13 different occasions about the smoke detector’s low battery, the last one being Oct. 16, 2017.

On Oct. 28 or early Oct. 29, 2017, a fire began in the house. Although investigators were unable to establish its cause, the fire likely originated in or near either a closet or attic stairwell that was close to the home’s kitchen, smoldered for some time, and then vented through the roof. The wife was alone in the house and sleeping in the living room on the couch. Eventually a neighbor noticed flames projecting from the house’s roof and alerted the authorities.

The husband, as administrator of the wife’s estate, initiated the lawsuit. The company moved for summary judgment, arguing that they owed no duties to the wife other than those embodied in their contract. The husband cross moved for summary judgment and argued that the company had been negligent for failing to follow Ohio’s fire code, which he claimed mandated that the company install smoke detectors in every sleeping room, outside every sleeping room, and at least one on every level. The district court denied the husband’s motion for summary judgment and granted the company’s motion for summary judgment.

On appeal, the husband argued that the company owed them a duty to install more smoke detectors in the house and a duty to warn the wife about the fire as well as about the low-battery.

To support his claim that the company owed his wife a duty to install additional smoke detectors, the husband focused on parts of the Ohio Fire Code. The court indicated that even if the Ohio Fire Code does impose a tort-based duty to install more smoke detectors, the code is clear about whose duty this is: “Correction and abatement of violations of this code shall be the responsibility of the owner.” In other words, it was not the company who was obligated to install more smoke detectors in the residence. Instead, it was the couple’s responsibility as the owners of the home to bring the property into compliance with the Ohio Fire Code by installing the requisite number of smoke detectors.

Turning next to whether the company owed the wife any duty to warn, the husband details two distinct duties. First, he argued that the company owed the wife and the rest of the household a general common-law duty to provide early warning of the fire. Even if such a duty existed, the company argued that the wife assumed the risks associated with a non-working smoke detector when she repeatedly ignored notifications about the issue.

Under the unique facts of this case, a reasonable person must conclude that the wife’s negligence in failing to heed the warnings provided by company about the low-battery signal outweighed any negligence by the company. At the outset, the court emphasized that this is not a case where a fire alarm company provided little or no warning about the faulty equipment.

The court concluded that because it was proper to grant the company’s motion for summary judgment on the husband’s negligence and gross negligence claims, it followed that the district court’s decision to deny the husband’s motion for summary judgment on these claims was also proper.