A recent court case pitted homeowners against Brink’s Home Security in which the plaintiff alleged n

What if your company installed a residential fire alarm system, but your installer listed the wrong fire department on the emergency information form and a fire subsequently occurred at the premises? What if that fire department refused to respond because the burning house was not in its district and extensive damage resulted?

Would you be able to rely on a limitation of liability provision in your customer contract? In a recent case, an appellate court in the state of Washington addressed this issue and ruled in favor of the alarm company. Why did the court do so and what lessons can be learned from this case?

Following is an overview of the Jennings v. Brink’s Home Security case.

Homeowners Blame Brink’s for Fire Damage

In the case, a couple, the Jennings, brought a claim against Brink’s after their home suffered extensive fire damage. Brink’s had installed a fire alarm system in the Jennings’ home, and the installer had filled out a “Customer Emergency Information Schedule” with the help of the homeowner. The Schedule contained such information as the local fire department’s name, as well as the telephone number to call in the event of a fire.

When the Jennings’ home caught fire and Brink’s received the signal, its dispatcher contacted the number on the Schedule and reached the Sumner Fire Department, which refused to respond because the house was outside its district. Brink’s then called a second fire department, which agreed to respond even though the house was not in its district either. The homeowners alleged that the fire trucks could not figure out how to reach the house and “drove around in circles” until a neighbor directed them to the house. As a result of the delay in response time, the damage from the fire was extensive.

The homeowners filed suit against Brink’s, alleging negligence in failing to select the proper fire department and in failing to provide the fire department with detailed directions to the house. In its defense, Brink’s argued that the limitation of liability provision in the customer contract limited its liability to monitoring fees paid for the 12 months prior to the fire. The court agreed and awarded the Jennings $332.35.

Jennings Decide to Appeal Lower Court Ruling

Despite the ruling, the Jennings decided to appeal their case. On appeal, the appellate court stated that unless there is a statute to the contrary, the general rule is that contracts that limit liability for negligence are valid. The court stated that limitation of liability clauses will not be upheld only in instances where they are ambiguous or inconspicuous to the extent that a customer may have released a service provider from liability “unwittingly.” 

Brink’s Case Could Be a Model for Other Dealers

The lesson to be learned from this case is security alarm companies need to take precautions when completing customer emergency information forms. In particular, the police and fire contact information should be checked and verified. In addition, this case illustrates how critical it is for alarm companies to enter into written contracts with their customers, and that such contracts contain a clear and unambiguous limitation of liability provision.

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