Federal appeals court upholds $2.8M award for faulty smoke alarm - 13 WTHR Indianapolis

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Federal appeals court upholds $2.8M award for faulty smoke alarm

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Sheila Hackert Sheila Hackert
Hackert says the family's First Alert smoke alarm did not sound during a deadly fire. Hackert says the family's First Alert smoke alarm did not sound during a deadly fire.
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Bob Segall/13 Investigates

Sheila Hackert is shedding more tears, but this time, they are tears of relief.

The New York widow has learned a federal appeals court has affirmed a jury's decision that a faulty smoke alarm caused the death of her husband and daughter.

Bill and Christine Hackert died May 31, 2001, when they couldn't escape smoke and flames in their Rotterdam, NY, home. Sheila's son John survived after he jumped out a second-floor window and Sheila was able to crawl out the kitchen door. 

During the entire ordeal, the family says a First Alert smoke alarm did not make a sound.

"It didn't work," Hackert said. "If it doesn't work, you won't see your family the next day. They're gone."

A jury in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York decided in 2006 that First Alert and its parent company, BRK Brands, was liable for millions of dollars in damages because the ionization smoke alarm in the Hackert's house was defective, failing to detect the slow-burning fire and choking smoke that filled the home as the family slept.

First Alert maintains its ionization smoke alarms do work and says they provide "adequate escape time in most fires." The company quickly appealed the jury's decision.

Now, the company has lost its appeal.

Last week, a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals found sufficient evidence to uphold the jury's findings that First Alert was negligent because "the smoke detector was defectively designed," and that "the smoke detector's failure was a legal cause of the deaths of William and Christine Hackert." The panel also found that an award of punitive damages was appropriate.  First Alert and BRK have been ordered to pay Sheila and John Hackert $2.8 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

"Sheila cried when she heard the news," said her attorney, Jim Hacker. "Keep in mind, this case is now five years old, and it's been highly contentious every step of the way."

First Alert told WTHR it will not discuss the recent court decision or whether it plans further appeals.

That is not a surprise to the Hackert family, which contends First Alert is unwilling to take any blame for the 2001 tragedy.

"I'm frustrated," Sheila Hackert said. "To me they're still denying any responsibility. With two deaths, it's like they're saying, 'so what!'"

The fire in the Hackert home began with a frayed electrical cord behind a couch that smoldered for hours.

The case provides a powerful reminder about the differences in smoke alarms.

Ionization smoke detectors - the most popular type of smoke alarm in the United States - respond quickly to fast-burning fires. But in smoldering fires like the one in the Hackert house, ionization smoke alarms often respond slowly and, in some cases, they do not activate at all.

Photoelectric smoke alarms usually respond much faster in those fires. Combination or dual-sensor smoke alarms contain both types of technology and are available at many local retailers for less than $20.

Hacker says families should know which type of smoke alarm is in their home, and he believes First Alert should stop producing and selling stand-alone ionization smoke detectors.

"The proof showed that sometimes the ionization detectors wouldn't go off at all, and yet they continue to sell them. They continue to manufacture them, continue to stand by them," Hacker said. "Every single family in America -- if they have a smoke detector in their house -- they are affected by this."

What type of smoke detector do you have?

Newer smoke detectors are labeled much better. Here's what to look for: Photoelectric smoke detectors usually have the word PHOTOELECTRIC right on them. You might see a big "P" or a "blue symbol". And if you see the words "dual sensor," that means the smoke detector has both photoelectric and ionization built in. 

If you don't see any symbols chances are, it's probably an ionization smoke detector.  Those alarms are sometimes marked with a letter I, or other symbols

When you are taking a look at your smoke detector, please make sure to check the battery. That's crucial.

The bottom line: Smoke detectors do save lives. Adding a photoelectric smoke detector to your home will usually give you more warning in a slow-burning, nighttime fire.

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