Law School Case Brief
Carruth v. Pittway Corp. - 643 So. 2d 1340 (Ala. 1994)
If a vital warning is not read by the user of a product because it is conveyed in such a way that it is not calculated to attract the user's attention, due to its position, size, and coloring, then it can constitute a legally inadequate warning. The law does not require that necessary warnings be conveyed in the best way possible, but does require that they not be conveyed in a manner that effectively prevents a consumer from reading them and being warned.
In the early morning hours of Aug. 27, 1990, a fire occurred at the home of plaintiff Coy Carruth and his wife. Two days before the fire, Mr. Carruth had installed a smoke and fire detector was manufactured and sold by defendant Pittway Corporation. Six Carruth family members perished in their bedrooms; one escaped the house with severe burns and died two days later. Mr. Caruth, as administrator of the estate of one decedent, and plaintiff Larry Staton, as administrator of the estates of other decedents, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Pittway in Alabama state court, alleging that Pittway manufactured and sold a defective and unreasonably dangerous smoke detector and that the defect was the proximate cause of the seven deaths. Plaintiffs also raised a claim of negligent-failure-to-adequately-warn, averring that Pittway had inadequately warned consumers about locating the detector at wall-ceiling junctions. Pittway filed a motion for summary judgment, which the trial court granted. Plaintiffs appealed.
Was Pittway entitled to summary judgment on plaintiffs' claims?
The state supreme court reversed and remanded the the trial court's judgment. The court ruled that the evidence presented a jury question as to whether Pittway's lengthy pamphlet provided a legally adequate warning about dead-air space because the print size was very small, the warning was not highlighted in the text, and there was a seemingly sufficient diagram regarding the smoke detector's location on the box. There was also substantial evidence that the decedents could have heard a timely alarm but that the detector did not sound a timely alarm.
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