If you have a case involving a fire and there is a death or substantial injury, then you should consider a potential smoke alarm case. The first order of business is to secure the scene and locate all smoke alarms in the structure. The smoke alarms must be preserved. If the smoke alarm is still on the wall or ceiling, then remove a section of the wall or ceiling with the smoke alarm intact. The smoke alarm can be x-rayed to determine if the battery is still intact and properly positioned. The smoke alarm must be inspected by a smoke alarm expert and a battery expert if there is an issue with the battery. Failure to maintain the integrity of the smoke alarm and the battery during removal may result in spoliation of evidence issues. If the manufacturer can be identified prior to removal, then it is a good idea to contact the manufacturer and place it on notice of your intentions to remove the detector.

People familiar with the house should be questioned about the number and location of the smoke alarms and when and where they were purchased. Determine the make and model and purchase an exemplar. You should determine if the smoke alarm sounded or sounded late during the fire. Immediately interview any survivors, neighbors, and first responders to determine if they heard a smoke alarm sound. If the smoke alarm is powered, but did not sound in the presence of smoke, then you most likely have a defective ionization smoke alarm. If your investigation reveals that the smoke alarm did sound, then determine at what point in the fire it sounded. Remember that ionization smoke alarms have a significant delay in sounding. Oftentimes, the sleeping occupant needs only 30 more seconds to get out of the burning structure and a smoke alarm sounding 15-30 minutes late could certainly be the cause of their inability to escape.

Smoke Alarm Lawsuits

The causes of action against a smoke alarm manufacturer are well known to most lawyers. You allege product liability, negligence and wantonness. However, you should also consider breach of warranty and failure to warn.

One of the best theories of recovery against a smoke alarm manufacturer is failure to warn. It can be easily proven that the smoke alarm manufacturer knows that the ionization smoke alarm has a history of failure and defect. The manufacturer will admit the delay in sounding and will have to admit its knowledge of the consumer complaints. However, despite this knowledge, the manufacturers do not warn about the hazard. Purchase an ionization smoke alarm at a local retail store and read the package front and back before opening it. Typically, the only information pertaining to the limitation (defect) of the smoke alarm is wording such as:

“Kidde recommends for maximum protection that both ionization and photoelectric smoke alarms be installed. Ionization technology is faster at detecting fast flaming fires that give off little smoke. Photoelectric technology is faster at responding to slow smoldering, smoky fires.”

There is no warning on the package telling the purchaser how much faster the photoelectric is at detecting a slow smoldering fire. The manufacturer knows the ionization alarm has a 15-30 minute delay in sounding when compared to the photoelectric. However, this is not revealed. In fact, the smoke alarm manufacturers have testified that they do not warn about the substantial delay in sounding or the risk of not sounding. They must admit this because there are no “warnings” concerning this defect in the packaging or on the alarm. [more]


At least three states have “outlawed” ionization-only smoke alarms in new construction.  Massachusetts, Vermont and Iowa passed laws that do not allow ionization-only smoke alarms in new construction. A similar bill should soon be enacted in Tennessee.  Unfortunately, these laws were initiated before the state legislatures by families who lost loved ones in fires where ionization smoke alarms did not sound or delayed in sounding. We should not wait for more deaths before we bring the issue before the state legislatures. The laws that were passed by Massachusetts, Vermont and Iowa can be found on our website.

Our law firm recently reached a confidential settlement in the Spencer v Kidde in Mobile, Alabama against a major smoke alarm manufacturer. In that case, a single mother age 32, and her two minor children ages 11 and 14, died when their ionization smoke alarm did not sound during a slow smoldering fire. The Spencer family and our law firm established a foundation called Smoke Alarm Awareness Foundation. The purpose of the foundation is to make the public aware of the defects in ionization smoke alarms and to introduce a law in the Alabama Legislature similar to the laws in Massachusetts, Vermont and Iowa. It appears that the only way to get ionization smoke detectors off the market is to have legislation passed or for juries to hold the manufacturers accountable. Hopefully, you can help by introducing legislation in your State or by asking a jury to hold the manufacturers accountable.

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