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Failure to Warn

15 January, 2016 - 09:34

Laaperi v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., Inc.

787 F.2d 726 C.A.1 (Mass. 1986)

Campbell, J.

In March 1976, plaintiff Albin Laaperi purchased a smoke detector from Sears. The detector, manufactured by the Pittway Corporation, was designed to be powered by AC (electrical) current. Laaperi installed the detector himself in one of the two upstairs bedrooms in his home.

Early in the morning of December 27, 1976, a fire broke out in the Laaperi home. The three boys in one of the upstairs bedrooms were killed in the blaze. Laaperi’s 13-year-old daughter Janet, who was sleeping in the other upstairs bedroom, received burns over 12 percent of her body and was hospitalized for three weeks.

The uncontroverted testimony at trial was that the smoke detector did not sound an alarm on the night of the fire. The cause of the fire was later found to be a short circuit in an electrical cord that was located in a cedar closet in the boys’ bedroom. The Laaperi home had two separate electrical circuits in the upstairs bedrooms: one which provided electricity to the outlets and one which powered the lighting fixtures. The smoke detector had been connected to the outlet circuit, which was the circuit that shorted and cut off. Because the circuit was shorted, the AC-operated smoke detector received no power on the night of the fire. Therefore, although the detector itself was in no sense defective (indeed, after the fire the charred detector was tested and found to be operable), no alarm sounded.

Laaperi brought this diversity action against defendants Sears and Pittway, asserting negligent design, negligent manufacture, breach of warranty, and negligent failure to warn of inherent dangers. The parties agreed that the applicable law is that of Massachusetts. Before the claims went to the jury, verdicts were directed in favor of defendants on all theories of liability other than failure to warn.…

Laaperi’s claim under the failure to warn theory was that he was unaware of the danger that the very short circuit which might ignite a fire in his home could, at the same time, incapacitate the smoke detector. He contended that had he been warned of this danger, he would have purchased a battery-powered smoke detector as a back-up or taken some other precaution, such as wiring the detector to a circuit of its own, in order better to protect his family in the event of an electrical fire.

The jury returned verdicts in favor of Laaperi in all four actions on the failure to warn claim. The jury assessed damages in the amount of $350,000 [$1,050,000, or about $3,400,000 in 2010 dollars] each of the three actions brought on behalf of the deceased sons, and $750,000 [about $2,500,000 in 2010 dollars] in the action brought on behalf of Janet Laaperi. The defendants’ motions for directed verdict and judgment notwithstanding the verdict were denied, and defendants appealed.

Defendants ask us to declare that the risk that an electrical fire could incapacitate an AC-powered smoke detector is so obvious that the average consumer would not benefit from a warning. This is not a trivial argument; in earlier—some might say sounder—days, we might have accepted it.… Our sense of the current state of the tort law in Massachusetts and most other jurisdictions, however, leads us to conclude that, today, the matter before us poses a jury question; that “obviousness” in a situation such as this would be treated by the Massachusetts courts as presenting a question of fact, not of law. To be sure, it would be obvious to anyone that an electrical outage would cause this smoke detector to fail. But the average purchaser might not comprehend the specific danger that a fire-causing electrical problem can simultaneously knock out the circuit into which a smoke detector is wired, causing the detector to fail at the very moment it is needed. Thus, while the failure of a detector to function as the result of an electrical malfunction due, say, to a broken power line or a neighborhood power outage would, we think, be obvious as a matter of law, the failure that occurred here, being associated with the very risk—fire—for which the device was purchased, was not, or so a jury could find.…

Finally, defendants contend that the award of $750,000 [$2.5 million in 2010 dollars] in damages to Janet Laaperi was excessive, and should have been overturned by the district court.…

Janet Laaperi testified that on the night of the fire, she woke up and smelled smoke. She woke her friend who was sleeping in her room, and they climbed out to the icy roof of the house. Her father grabbed her from the roof and took her down a ladder. She was taken to the hospital. Although she was in “mild distress,” she was found to be “alert, awake, [and] cooperative.” Her chest was clear. She was diagnosed as having first and second degree burns of her right calf, both buttocks and heels, and her left lower back, or approximately 12 percent of her total body area. She also suffered from a burn of her tracheobronchial mucosa (i.e., the lining of her airway) due to smoke inhalation, and multiple superficial lacerations on her right hand.

The jury undoubtedly, and understandably, felt a great deal of sympathy for a young girl who, at the age of 13, lost three brothers in a tragic fire. But by law the jury was only permitted to compensate her for those damages associated with her own injuries. Her injuries included fright and pain at the time of and after the fire, a three-week hospital stay, some minor discomfort for several weeks after discharge, and a permanent scar on her lower back. Plaintiff has pointed to no cases, and we have discovered none, in which such a large verdict was sustained for such relatively minor injuries, involving no continuing disability.

The judgments in favor of Albin Laaperi in his capacity as administrator of the estates of his three sons are affirmed. In the action on behalf of Janet Laaperi, the verdict of the jury is set aside, the judgment of the district court vacated, and the cause remanded to that court for a new trial limited to the issue of damages.


  1. The “C.A. 1” under the title of the case means it is a US Court of Appeals case from the First Circuit in Massachusetts. Why is this case in federal court?
  2. Why does the court talk about its “sense of the current state of tort law in Massachusetts” and how this case “would be treated by the Massachusetts courts,” as if it were not in the state at all but somehow outside?
  3. What rule of law is in play here as to the defendants’ liability?
  4. This is a tragic case—three boys died in a house fire. Speaking dispassionately—if not heartlessly—though, did the fire actually cost Mr. Laaperi, or did he lose $3.4 million (in 2010 dollars) as the result of his sons’ deaths? Does it make sense that he should become a millionaire as a result? Who ends up paying this amount? (The lawyers’ fees probably took about half.)
  5. Is it likely that smoke-alarm manufactures and sellers changed the instructions as a result of this case?