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The Iowa Supreme Court has ordered a retrial of a $16.6 million products liability judgment against the makers of First Alert smoke alarms, finding that the trial court erred in admitting as evidence more than 350 consumer complaints that the alarms failed to detect smoke. The plaintiffs had contended that a First Alert ionization smoke detector was defective and failed to sound in a fire that killed one child and severely injured another in Davenport, Iowa. But the Iowa court dismissed as inadmissible the more than 200 consumer complaints filed after the fire that spurred the lawsuit, and determined that the plaintiff had failed to provide sufficient evidence that the earlier complaints were “substantially similar” to the Davenport fire. A PARENT’S NIGHTMARE The court did provide some solace to the plaintiffs by rejecting the defendants’ claims of insufficient evidence on the plaintiffs’ contentions of breach of warranty, negligent design and failure to warn, said plaintiffs’ attorney John O. Moeller of Davenport. But defense appellate attorney Roger T. Stetson of Des Moines’ Belin Lamson McCormick Zumbach Flynn predicted that the defendants will win the retrial. He said that “without the consumer complaints to inflame the jury, we’ll be successful in the retrial.” On Jan. 18, 1993, Jennifer and Nathan Mercer heard a noise coming from the bedroom of their sons, Travis, age 18 months, and Bradley, age three. Moments later, Ms. Mercer smelled smoke and headed upstairs to check on the children. Mr. Mercer ran to get a fire extinguisher. Neither heard the smoke detector sounding, said Moeller. Mr. Mercer attempted to reach the boys, but the smoke was too intense. Mr. Mercer raced to the adjoining duplex, smashed a hole in the wall with his fists and pulled Travis out of the bed, Moeller said. Firefighters arrived and brought Bradley out. He lingered for six days before dying. Travis survived but has required numerous surgeries. The Mercers filed a products liability action against Gerry Baby Products Co., makers of a baby monitor that was in their sons’ room. The monitor, Moeller alleged, was defective and overheated, causing the fire. Gerry Baby Products settled for an undisclosed amount in July 1996. The Mercers also sued First Alert Inc. and its related companies, Pittway Corp. and BRK Brands Inc., charging that the First Alert smoke detector was defective and failed to give the Mercers ample time to respond to the fire. The smoke alarm in the Mercer home was an ionization detector, which is less sensitive than photoelectric detectors to smoldering fires or fires that emit smoke consisting of larger-sized smoke particles, Moeller said. But, he added, Mr. Mercer was not warned that the smoke detector might not work in certain fires. Mercer v. Pittway Corp., No. 89732 (Dist. Ct., Scott Co., Iowa). The defendants denied any defects or failures to warn, but on Feb. 11, 1998, a Davenport, Iowa, jury awarded the plaintiffs $8.8 million in compensatories and $12.5 million in punitives. Because of the jury’s finding of 50 percent liability to Gerry Baby Products, the compensatory award against the First Alert defendants was $4.4 million. The defendants appealed, charging that the evidence was insufficient to support the verdicts. The Iowa Supreme Court agreed that the plaintiffs had “failed to prove that BRK’s conduct was willful and wanton” and entered a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, striking the punitives. The court also said the district court “committed reversible error by admitting all 363 consumer complaints into evidence.” BRK had argued that many of the incidents were not similar to the Mercer fire and that the smoke detectors failed for a variety of reasons, including no batteries and improper connection. The court decided that only those consumer complaints received by BRK before the Mercer fire were admissible.

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