Is there or should there be liability for dispatching on a false alarm? Alarm response centers face this issue every day, and by extension alarm dealers who have to deal with the associated irate subscribers. While you may think the worst that can happen is a false alarm fine and possibly later conflict with the customer who’s going to pay for it, there are other damages and claims that can arise. Refusal of police and fire departments to respond to your subscriber’s premises comes to mind, but that is related to the false alarm fine issue.
Alarm companies get involved with liability for false alarms primarily in two ways. The first is destruction to the subscriber’s premises for what turns out to be no reason at all. The second is for injury suffered by those responding to what turns out to be a false alarm, creating an unnecessary and unjustified risk. How do these potential claims typically arise?
Damage to your subscriber’s premises is easy to imagine. A faulty CO detector signals the central station that in turn notifies the fire department. The subscriber isn’t home and the fire department has to break into the premises only to find no trace of carbon monoxide.
Responder injury is another potential for liability. Police or fire personnel responding to a legitimate emergency alarm who are injured on the way to the premises or while at the premises would not think of suing the central station that dispatched the alarm. But when the alarm is considered false the injured responder believes the risk of response should not have been necessary; the risk was necessitated because of the negligence of the alarm company.
There have been cases where police or firefighters have been injured in car accidents on the way to the alarmed premises. There have been cases where emergency responders have been injured once arriving at the subscriber’s premises. I recall one case where a police officer’s leg went through a wooden staircase when he was checking the back door for illegal entry, responding to what turned out to be a false burglar alarm.
The general common law rule is called the Fireman’s Rule, and has been extended to police and other emergency responders. They are not permitted to sue for damages arising from their response to emergency situations because that is precisely what they are trained and paid to do. However, some jurisdictions have enacted laws to permit emergency responders to sue for injury under certain circumstances. Suing under these laws, rather than under the common law (which is the law that we in this country pretty much took from England) requires different criteria to establish liability.
Under these statutes the injured responder needs to prove that a defendant violated a specific statute, regulation or rule, and that the violation caused the injury. The injured responder will have to identify the statute or ordinance, describe how the responder was injured and detail the facts showing how the defendant was negligent, thereby causing the harm.
False alarms in some jurisdictions may violate some law or ordinance. For example, there may be verification required and the central station may not have followed protocol. The alarm system may not be installed in accordance with code requirements constituting a violation.
There are some other types of claims that arise from false alarms as well. Years ago, I defended a lawsuit by a subscriber who claimed to suffer a heart attack caused by a false alarm in the middle of the night. I won that one. Presently I am defending an alarm company whose subscriber was seriously injured after she decided to jump out of a second-story window in response to a false alarm. That case is still pending after almost five years of litigation. I’ll keep you posted.
Ken Kirschenbaum has been a recognized counsel to the alarm industry for 35 years and is principal of Kirschenbaum & Kirschenbaum, P.C. His team of attorneys, which includes daughter Jennifer, specialize in transactional, defense litigation, regulatory compliance and collection matters. The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of SSI, and not intended as legal advice.