Carbon Monoxide Litigation

Carbon Monoxide Litigation Focuses on Owners and Contractors

By Gordon S. Johnson, Jr.


Carbon Monoxide Litigation often focuses on the owners of buildings and the contractors who installed heating appliances, particularly hot water heaters. Any person or entity who either owned the place where carbon monoxide poisoning occurred or installed or maintained the gas burning appliances in a building, can be found liable for the poisoning. In the Brain Injury Law Group’s recent Days Inn litigation, fault was asserted against the owner of the hotel and two different HVAC (heating, ventilating and air conditioning) contractors. All three paid substantial sums to avoid a trial.

It is easy for most people to see how the owner of a hotel could be found at fault for failing to protect the hotel guests form carbon monoxide poisoning. Carbon monoxide poisoning does not happen without fault and while it is an invisible, odorless gas, there is almost always some warning or notice that it could become a problem. Often the contractors will be aware of negative pressure problems in ventilating appliances, but don’t articulate that such negative pressure problems will ultimately result in carbon monoxide exposure. As stated by one hot water heater manufacturer in its operators manual:

WARNING – Adequate clean combustion air must be provided to the appliance. Under no circumstances should the appliance ever be under a negative pressure. Particular care should be taken when exhaust fans, compressors, air handling units, etc. may rob air from the appliance. The combustion air supply must be completely free of any chemical or fumes, which may be corrosive to the boiler. Some common chemical fumes to avoid are fluorocarbons and other halogenated compounds, most commonly present as refrigerants or solvents, such as Freon, trichloroethylene, perchlorethylene, chlorine, etc. These chemicals, when in contact with the equipment or when burned, form acids which quickly attack the tubes, flue collector, stack and other appliance and auxiliary equipment. The result of inadequate clean combustion air or negative pressure can be premature unwarranted product failure or unsafe operation producing carbon monoxide that could escape into the building. Exposure to carbon monoxide can lead to injury or death.

Carbon monoxide litigation will require the attorney represented the plaintiffs who were exposed to identify these four basic factors that need to be considered:

  • Source of the carbon monoxide;
  • Pathway the carbon monoxide followed from the source to the person’s poisoned;
  • Driving force that caused the carbon monoxide to move from the source thru the pathway(s)
  • The individuals exposed.

Any individual or business which is responsible for any of the first three factors, could be found at fault in the carbon monoxide litigation.

Evaluating the Source of the Carbon Monoxide Contamination

Any motor or appliance that burns carbon fuels such as gasoline or natural gas can cause carbon monoxide poisoning. There are two elements to avoiding carbon monoxide exposure: making sure the appliance has all the fresh air (oxygen) it needs and making sure the appliance is properly vented. Direct fresh air intake solves most potential problems because the appliance burns clean and there should be no problems from poor draft (negative pressure.) For the Danger of Negative Pressure, click here.

The other obvious concern is making sure that the integrity of the venting (usually up a chimney or out the sidewall) is intact. Broken or corroded pipes are often the culprit in a carbon monoxide exposure event. But negative pressure can be part of that problem because negative pressure problems will cause corrosion inside the pipes, which will impact the structural integrity of the exhaust system.

Pathway and Force

Most fuel burning appliances are contained in boiler rooms, which should be relatively contained environments, with fire doors which should be kept closed. Thus, when customers or students get poisoned, the question of how the poisonous gas got to where the people are, is important. If the leak in the chimney is adjacent to a hotel room like in the Days Inn case, that can be the answer. Other times, poor design has the carbon monoxide creating appliance dumping air into the fresh air intake for the HVAC system in a building. This may be the explanation for the pathway. Other times, the dangerous gas followed the path of least resistance to get to where the people are. Gases flow to areas based upon primarily two factors: hot air rises and all air will flow to the source of suction. When the building has negative or positive pressure, this will force the poison towards the source of the suction, like a giant vacuum cleaner.

Danger of Negative Pressure Issues

Carbon Monoxide Litigation Against Schools

Failure to Install Carbon Monoxide Detectors is Negligence


Gordon Johnson

Attorney Gordon Johnson is one of the nations leading brain injury advocates. He is Past-Chair of the TBILG, a national group of more than 150 brain injury advocates. He has spoken at numerous brain injury seminars and is the author of some of the most read brain injury web pages on the internet.

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