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First Alert ordered to pay $17 million in faulty smoke detector suit

February 12, 1998

DAVENPORT, Iowa (AP) _ The world’s largest maker of smoke detectors has been ordered to pay nearly $17 million to a couple who blamed a faulty detector for their son’s death in a house fire.

One of the family’s lawyers said First Alert told him it was the first time a jury had ruled against it.

``I guess they met their match,″ said attorney John Moeller.

Jennifer and Nathan Mercer claimed that a $10 First Alert smoke detector malfunctioned in their home Jan. 18, 1993, leading to the death of their 3-year-old son, Bradley, and the disfigurement of their son Travis, then 18 months.

A faulty baby monitor that overheated started the fire.

Jurors on Wednesday ordered First Alert to pay $12.5 million in punitive damages and $4.4 million in compensatory damages.

Jennifer Mercer cried and dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief after the verdict. ``Happy. I’m just ..., ″ she said, not finishing her sentence.

The company’s attorney, Stuart Lefstein, called the compensatory award ``reasonable.″

``I don’t think that can be quarreled with,″ he said, but added that he would appeal the punitive damage award.

The company ``adhered to recognized standards in testing by Underwriters Laboratories,″ Lefcourt said. ``In our view, that should have precluded the issue even being considered by the jury.″

During the trial, Jennifer Mercer testified that the smoke detector did not sound an alarm until well after the damage had been done.

She told the jury that thick smoke prevented her husband from going into the boys’ bedroom, so he had to break through a wall to pull Travis to safety. He was unable to reach Bradley.

``Had the detector worked and given them even five minutes warning,″ Moeller said, ``this would be a $9,000 property damage case.″

Jurors also ruled that the makers of the baby monitor, Gerry Baby Products, was liable for $4.4 million in compensatory damages.

But the company will not have to pay because it settled a lawsuit with the Mercers in 1996 for an undisclosed sum.

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