Lessing E. Gold

In a recent case in Louisiana, the potential liability of the manufacturer of a smoke detector came under review after a fire destroyed the contents of an apartment. One child died and two others were injured. The mother sued the defendant, the manufacturer of a smoke detector system, claiming that the smoke detector was defective.

The Louisiana court granted a summary judgment in favor of the manufacturer, finding that the mother failed to show a causal relationship between the smoke detector and the injuries. The mother appealed.

The fire started in the apartment. Upon discovering the fire, the plaintiff stated in her affidavit that she attempted to extinguish the fire, and when she could not, she attempted to move the burning loveseat out of the apartment’s front door.

Unable to do so, she stated that she vacated her apartment and went to a neighbor’s apartment door and knocked. She then returned to her apartment to get her children, only to discover that the front door was filled with flames and smoke. Upon seeing this, she ran around to the back door and could not get in because the back door was locked.

On appeal, the appellate court pointed out that the action was under the Louisiana Products’ Liability Act, Section 9:2800.51. Under the act, the plaintiff had to prove that:

  • the defendant manufactured the product;
  • the claimant’s damage was proximately caused by a characteristic of the product;
  • this characteristic made the product unreasonably dangerous in construction or composition, in design, because of an inadequate warning or because it does not conform to an express warranty of the manufacturer; and
  • the claimant’s damage arose from a reasonably anticipated use of the product by the claimant or someone else.

The trial court concluded that there was no factual support for three of the elements of the plaintiff’s claim. The plaintiff alleged that there was a lack of bug guards on the smoke detectors and that roaches could cause smoke detectors to malfunction.

The plaintiff also alleged that hard-wired smoke detectors fail to activate in high humidities and temperatures and that this makes them unreasonably dangerous. The court pointed out that there is no direct evidence that there were roaches in the smoke detector and there was no evidence that the temperature and humidity affected the performance of the detector.

With reference to the requirement that the smoke detector was causally related to the plaintiff’s death, the evidence pointed out that the plaintiff left her apartment leaving her three children behind. Therefore, the trial court found that no reasonable person could conclude that any alleged defect in the plaintiff’s smoke detector caused injuries and death to the children.

Because the plaintiff could not prove who the manufacturer of the smoke detector was, she attempted to rely on the market share liability theory. The court pointed out that although market share liability is recognized in some jurisdictions, it is apparently not recognized in Louisiana. Furthermore, the appellate court pointed out that the plaintiffs failed to produce any testimony that the smoke alarm contained a defect.

Without scientific explanation, tests and bases, the court simply found that lay testimony is not sufficient to prove a defect. Therefore, the decision of the lower court was affirmed.