In the alarm industry, there are two topics guaranteed to make the news: one is anything about ADT, and the other is when an alarm company is actually brought to trial. Today’s post deals with both topics. In this case a tragic double murder spawned the lawsuit – and the defendant is the largest US alarm services provider, ADT Security. But this story has had some strange twists and turns along the way. The incident itself occurred in Washington County, MN in 2006, and two recent news articles lay out the facts (here’s one and here’s the other).
Nearly five years after Teri Lee and Timothy Hawkinson Sr. were shot dead in Lee’s West Lakeland Township home, a legal battle over the culpability of the failed alarm system is ongoing. The dispute began after the September 2006 double murder, when Lee’s family said publicly that because the alarm failed to sound, Steven Van Keuren broke in and murdered her. The family sued ADT Security Services in July 2007.
ADT at Fault?
The facts seem to be piling up against ADT: it appears the alarm system may have been misrepresented when it was sold, and then did not work as promised. I am only posting excerpts from the articles – you should read both reports in their entirety to get all the detail.
In their suit, the families said that the security system was installed improperly and that ADT knowingly concealed it from Lee. Lee bought the system after Van Keuren, a former boyfriend, attacked her.
Van Keuren slipped past several warning devices that ADT had installed just weeks earlier. He awoke Lee and her new boyfriend, Timothy Hawkinson Sr., and shot them to death in a second-floor bedroom in the presence of Lee’s four children.
What Went Wrong?
The suit outlines a series of alleged security system failures: A phone-line monitor should have sounded the alarms when Van Keuren cut the outside lines, but the monitor was wrongly disabled; a glass-break detector in the family room had been improperly installed and failed to activate when Van Keuren used a crowbar to break a window; and two motion detectors failed to detect Van Keuren as he walked from the basement to the upstairs bedroom because ADT had programmed them to be off at that time.
It wasn’t that Van Keuren had managed to best the system, the suit says. The system’s “catastrophic failure…was a direct and proximate result of ADT’s failure to complete its work and failure to properly provide all of the critical layers of security protection that ADT had represented to Teri Lee that she was purchasing.”
Pointing the Finger Did Not Work
Last week’s order by U.S. District Judge John Tunheim denies ADT’s motion to implicate the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and the St. Paul Park Police Department in the suit. ADT had argued that both agencies had failed to arrest Van Keuren for violating court orders that prohibited him from contacting her. “This was a Hail Mary attempt by ADT to cast the blame on someone other than themselves,” said attorney Jon Iverson, who represents Washington County in liability matters. “The court saw through the charade and it’s been thrown out.”
Every person or business is entitled to a defense in court, but if my alarm company were accused of having overpromised and under-delivered, I’m not sure I would try to pass the blame on to local law enforcement. Seems this particular judge did not like that approach either.
And There’s More
Tunheim also scolded ADT for being “inexcusably late” in its disclosure of documents that the family’s attorney had requested as early as 2008. “ADT blames its flagrant violation of its discovery obligations on attorney error; whatever the cause, it is unacceptable,” Tunheim wrote. Mentioned specifically was an ADT document known as “model sales call” that advised sales representatives to tell buyers that intrusion alarms, if activated, would sound if telephone lines were cut. ADT belatedly tried to submit to the court new versions of that document, Tunheim wrote. Harper said ADT had intentionally altered versions of the sales call document to serve its purposes.
A Sobering Reminder
It’s our job as alarm service providers to represent our products and services accurately, and to follow through with whatever statements we make about how the system will work. There are plenty of situations where an alarm system does not function as it’s designed, or individual system elements do not operate as expected, and some of these cases end badly. But as stated above, it’s rare for these incidents to go to trial.
This is a landmark case: I cannot remember another situation over the past twenty-plus years where the alarm company seemed to have done so many things wrong – especially with such a disastrous outcome. Add in what appears to be stalling, alteration of documents, and blaming others to avoid prosecution, and it’s not surprising that this case is going to trial: it’s not a pretty picture. Truly, I would not wish this situation on anyone: the victims, their families, or ADT itself. The best line in the article is the following:
Sheriff Bill Hutton, who was an Oakdale police captain when the murders occurred, greeted Tunheim’s order with mixed feelings. “No matter how you look at it, it’s still a tragedy for the families,” he said.