Complicated Web of Potential Liability in Undetected Carbon Monoxide Deaths at Hotel

A series of two separate occasions of death by carbon monoxide poisoning in a hotel room provides an overview of a complicated web of potential liability. smoke%20detector.jpg

While it appears as though lawsuits have yet to be filed on behalf of an older couple and young boy who both died on two separate occasions due to severe carbon monoxide poisoning in a hotel room, the potential for liability of the various parties responsible seems apparent.

The first incident occurred in April, when a couple in their 70s died in their hotel room of unknown causes. Apparently, the fire department did not test the room for any potential gas issues, citing that it was not their responsibility, and also that their vehicles were not at that time equipped with testing equipment.

Additionally, the medical examiner did not go to the room where the deaths occurred, which some experts say is a crucial first step in investigating suspicious deaths. Apparently not reporting to the scene is commonplace in the state where the incident occurred. However, the state’s medical examiner opined that, typically, there is little to be gained by attending the scene, and further that, because the medical examiners are paid so little, a requirement to tend to the scene might make it even more difficult for the state to retain qualified professionals.

While several medical examiners stated that the signs of carbon-monoxide poisoning should have been evident in autopsy results, such as with bright red blood, another medical examiner recounted a common saying in pathology that “If you’re not looking for it, you’re not going to find it.” In fact, the autopsy results of the couple made no mention of the color of their blood, but stated that the two individuals had had severe coronary disease and that both had mild to moderate fluid in their lungs, plus congestion. While those symptoms could be markers of carbon-monoxide poisoning, they also could be signs of heart disease or overdose.

However the examiner did potentially consider carbon monoxide poisoning as a possible cause, since he asked that their blood samples be tested for it, in addition to other substances, when he sent it out to the state lab. Apparently due to his failure to complete a certain part of the form or to request the results “stat,” it took over 40 days for the samples to be tested.

An executive assistant to Maryland’s chief medical examiner said in a statement that Maryland turns around most tests within three to five days and, in an urgent case, within 15 minutes. Others states reported a two- to three-week turnaround.

In this case, the results did reach the medical examiner a few days prior to the re-opening of the room for rent, but it remains unclear whether he read them or not.

Some 53 days after the couples’ unexplained deaths, a woman and her 11 year old son checked into the recently reopened room, and the woman narrowly escaped the same fate as her son, who unfortunately died.

An investigation revealed that there were reports from other hotel guests becoming sick in months past, though they suspected it was from the flu. Several young girls had become sick when attending a birthday party in a room one floor above the one that claimed the lives of three. One of the girls reportedly has damaged eyesight, and another has serious headaches.

The investigation ultimately revealed that what had happened was the heater for the pool was pumping dangerously high levels of carbon monoxide into the room above.

Further, when the hotel was initially built, the original plans called for carbon-monoxide detectors in the 11 rooms with fireplaces, but instead the contractor put in the wrong type of detectors, combustible gas monitors. The mistake was not uncovered until after the deaths.

Additionally, a separate investigation found multiple issues with the swimming pool heater, which had been moved from a separate hotel location owned by the same parent company. Apparently the employees were not licensed to conduct the work, and did not obtain a permit, or an inspection–in violation of the state’s building code requirements. In addition to improperly installing the unit, they also failed to install a carbon-monoxide detector nearby despite explicit warnings in the owner’s manual.

The state is considering whether any criminal charges are appropriate in this case.

Clearly this is an incredibly complex factual situation. Therefore, the following will be a brief, and as straightforward as possible, discussion of the potential legal claims of the two separate families involved in this case.

(1) Regarding the elderly couple:

The couple’s family would likely have a cause of action against the hotel on several different bases, all falling under a negligence standard. For example, conducting unpermitted work is not something that an ordinarily prudent hotel would do. Hotels, and all other landowners, owe a high duty of care to their patrons to ensure that their premises are safe. Relatedly, a failure to have carbon monoxide monitors installed could be a potential basis for liability of the hotel, but also as against the contractor who did not follow the plans properly, which if they would have been followed could potentially have prevented the couples’ deaths. Similarly, the failure of the employees to install a carbon monoxide monitor near the pool heating unit, or to realize that one should be installed and therefore notify management, would likely rise to a level of negligence that would likely be attributed to the hotel as their employer.

Under Maryland Law, there is the potential for both a survivorship action in regards to the likely suffering that the couple underwent until they died from the poisoning, in addition to a wrongful death action for both of their untimely deaths.

(2) Regarding the mother and her young son:

The mother, on behalf of herself and her late son, would likely have all of the same causes of action as those listed above.

However, in addition to those causes of action, she could potentially have further claims of a lack of due diligence on behalf of the hotel to investigate the cause of the previous deaths, especially predicated on the other reports of guest illnesses.

She could additionally have potential claims against the medical examiner, for a failure to attribute the cause of the prior deaths to the carbon monoxide, and against the state labs for a failure to process the lab results, which could have affected the underlying problem continuing to go undiagnosed.

Under Maryland Law, in addition to the mother’s claims regarding any injuries and medical bills she had incurred as a result of the incident, she would also have a survivorship claim for her son’s likely suffering, and a wrongful death claim for his resultant untimely death.

All of these various facts would likely require an extensive amount of evidence collection and “proof” in order to be successful. Even though the cause of the deaths seems obvious in isolation, all claims must still be proved under relevant evidentiary requirements, and ultimately before a judge and/or jury.

If you or a loved one has been injured as a result of a landowner’s negligent failure to maintain his or her property, contact the premises liability attorneys at Lebowitz & Mzhen, LLC today in order to schedule a free, no obligation, consultation. Our experienced attorneys have successfully represented many individuals who have been injured in slip and fall and other premises liability accidents. You can contact us through this website, or by calling our toll free number at 1-800-654-1949.

More Blog Posts:

District Court Dismisses Personal Injury Action under FTCA for Failure to Prove Negligence, Maryland Accident Law Blog, published December 17, 2013
D.C. District Court Ruling Upholds Assumption of Risk Defense to In-Home Construction Accident Lawsuit, Maryland Accident Law Blog, published December 10, 2013

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