Was Smoke Alarm Packaging Misleading?
In a 2016 case before the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut, the plaintiff attempted to bring suit on behalf of himself and a class of similarly situated consumers who purchased the defendants’ ionization smoke alarms. The complaint had three counts: violation of the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act; breach of the implied warranty of merchantability; and fraudulent concealment. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.
There are two primary types of smoke alarms sold in the United States: ionization smoke alarms and photoelectric smoke alarms. Ionization smoke alarms generally detect flaming fires more quickly than photoelectric smoke alarms; whereas photoelectric smoke alarms generally detect smoldering fires more quickly than ionization smoke alarms. The defendants manufacture and sell ionization smoke alarms.
The plaintiff alleged that for years the defendants have known of the dangers posed by the design of these ionization smoke alarms: they fail to adequately detect and, thus, to alert people to smoldering fires in their homes. He further alleged that the defendants purposely concealed this safety hazard to class members and the public. Although ionization smoke alarms meet prevailing industry standards, the plaintiff alleged that such metrics are out of date.
The court, in its decision, pointed out that packaging of the ionization smoke alarms is relevant to the plaintiff’s claims. First, with respect to use of the term “smoke alarm,” which is printed on the front of the box, the plaintiff alleged that “despite its label calling it a smoke alarm, it will not sense and timely alert them to the presence of a smoking, smoldering fire.” Secondly, the notice printed on the bottom of the box states, “manufacturer strongly recommends that both ionization and photoelectric smoke alarms be installed to help insure maximum detection of the various kinds of fires that can occur within their home.”
The complaint alleged that the defendant engaged in both unfair and deceptive trade practices. The defendants argued that there was no deception, as the packaging contains the very warning the plaintiff seeks. The court pointed out that an act or practice is deceptive if three conditions are met: 1. a representation, omission, or other practice likely to mislead consumers; 2. the consumers must interpret the message reasonably under the circumstances; and 3. the misleading representation, omission, or practice must be material — that is, likely to affect consumer decisions or conduct.
The court held that advertising the ionization smoke alarms as “smoke alarms” is not a deceptive trade practice. While it is true that ionization smoke alarms may not detect smoke from smoldering fires as quickly as photoelectric smoke alarms do, the defendants’ failure to elaborate on this fact on the front of the package does not render use of the term “smoke alarm” deceptive because the alarms do, in fact, detect smoke. Furthermore, the packaging specifies several times that the smoke alarm employs ionization technology. There is also a description of ionization technology and photoelectric technology on the bottom of the box.
With respect to the unfair trade practice claim, the court concluded that the plaintiff had not alleged facts sufficient to support the claim. The plaintiff alleged that he only inspected the front and back of the package. However, had he looked at the bottom of the package, where the limitations and benefits of ionization smoke alarms and photoelectric smoke alarms, respectively, are explained, he could have reasonably avoided the injury. The notice on the box clearly states that the photoelectric smoke alarm may detect the smoke from smoldering fires more quickly than ionization smoke alarms do and that consumers should install both alarms.
As to the breach of implied warranty, the court found that the plaintiff failed to allege facts that constitute strong circumstantial evidence of conscious misbehavior or recklessness and granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss plaintiff’s original class action complaint.
Q: We are an alarm company that installs and services systems for our customers and we contract monitoring to a third party monitoring company. Our monitoring company screwed up with one of our subscribers when the alarm was triggered and they neglected to contact the proper authorities. Do we have any exposure?
A: If you have a contract with your subscriber and your contract contains all of the necessary protective provisions, then you should not have any exposure. If your contract includes the services of the third party monitoring company, then they should not have any exposure. On the other hand, if your third party monitoring company has the direct contract with your subscriber, then it is an issue between the monitoring company and the subscriber and you should not be involved.
To ask Les Gold a question, e-mail SDM@bnpmedia.com.