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10.26.21 – Law360 – By Mike Curley Law360

The Sixth Circuit on Tuesday threw out claims that Spectrum Security LLC and the security arm of Time Warner Cable‘s failure to maintain a smoke alarm led to a woman’s death in an Ohio house fire, saying the woman was responsible for the alarm after ignoring months of low-battery alerts.

The three-judge panel affirmed a summary judgment in favor of Spectrum and TWC Security LLC in the suit filed by Jeffrey Kahl on behalf of his late wife, Heather, saying that Kahl failed to establish that the companies had any duty toward him and his wife that was breached.

According to the opinion, the Kahls in October 2013 contracted with Time Warner Cable to install a home security system that included a smoke alarm, which a Time Warner employee set up outside the house’s bedrooms. The alarm was the only smoke detector in the house, according to the opinion.

In June 2017, however, Spectrum, which had bought Time Warner Cable in the intervening years, began to receive signals that the smoke alarm had a low battery, and over the course of the next several months, sent alerts to Heather Kahl through email, text and phone calls, all of which went ignored, according to the opinion.

When Spectrum scheduled a service appointment, Heather Kahl canceled it via text, and she continued to ignore the alerts sent afterward. On Oct. 28, 2017, a fire started in the house that led to Heather Kahl’s death. Jeffrey Kahl sued in county court before the case was removed to federal court, which granted the companies summary judgment.

While Kahl had argued that the state’s fire code had imposed a duty on Spectrum and Time Warner to install more smoke detectors and maintain them, the panel on Tuesday wrote that the code makes clear about whose duty that is: the property’s owners.

To bring the home in compliance with the state fire code, therefore, the duty was the Kahls’, not Spectrum’s or Time Warner’s, the panel wrote.

The panel further wrote that even if the companies had a duty to warn the Kahls about the smoke detector, Heather Kahl assumed the risks of having a nonworking device when she repeatedly ignored Spectrum’s notifications, which came on 13 separate days, including two weeks before the fire.

While Kahl focused on Spectrum’s failure to notify them that there was a low-battery signal from the alarm on Sept. 14, 2017, the panel noted that there had been numerous alerts both before and after, as well as an attempt to schedule service on the device, which Heather Kahl canceled.

“Under the unique facts of this case, a reasonable person must conclude that Heather’s negligence in failing to heed the warnings provided by Spectrum about the low-battery signal outweighed any negligence by the defendants,” the panel wrote. “Jeffrey’s focus on the failure to notify Heather on September 14 of the low-battery signal that day does not alter the fact that Heather knew that there was a problem with the smoke detector, and that the risks posed by this problem were obvious.”

An attorney for Kahl declined to comment Tuesday.

Representatives for Spectrum and Time Warner could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.

U.S. Circuit Judges Ralph B. Guy Jr., Karen Nelson Moore and Julia Smith Gibbons sat on the panel for the Sixth Circuit.

Kahl is represented by Robert P. Rutter of Rutter & Russin LLC.

The companies are represented by Thomas J. Cabral, Joseph Monroe II and Richard C.O. Rezie of Gallagher Sharp LLP.

The case is Kahl v. Spectrum Security LLC et al., case number 21-3306, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

–Editing by Orlando Lorenzo.

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