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Who’s Liable for Carbon Monoxide Poisoning in an Apartment Complex?

man installing smoke detector on ceiling in a home.

Each year, more than 400 Americans die from accidental carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning, with an additional 14,000 hospitalized and approximately 50,000 visiting emergency departments.

Exposure to harmful levels of carbon monoxide can happen anywhere, including apartment units and complexes.

In Gwinnett County, fire crews were called to assist a person at an apartment complex who had become sick. They quickly discovered more than two dozen others with similar symptoms. Of the 27 people evaluated, eight residents (most of them children) were taken to hospitals for severe symptoms of CO poisoning.

The poisoning occurred because a gas-powered generator had been used in an improper way to provide temporary power to the unit after the electricity had gone out overnight.

Liability for Carbon Monoxide Exposure

Landlords, property owners, or the HVAC company servicing the apartment complex are liable for tenant injuries from carbon monoxide poisoning in most situations. Landlords and property managers in particular have a duty and responsibility to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning by installing carbon monoxide detectors and performing maintenance. If they neglect this responsibility, they may be found liable for their tenant’s carbon monoxide injuries and medical costs.

Most rental properties contain a fixture or appliance that emits carbon monoxide, such as gas stoves, water heaters, chimneys, or heating systems. Unsafe levels of the gas can accumulate when these items malfunction or aren’t properly ventilated and maintained.

How Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Can Happen

In many cases, carbon monoxide poisoning is the result of one or more of the following issues:

  • Little to no maintenance on gas-emitting items or appliances
  • Unqualified maintenance staff
  • Inadequate maintenance staffing
  • Lack of carbon monoxide alarms
  • Carbon monoxide alarms were not maintained
  • Carbon monoxide alarms were ignored
  • Tenants were not informed about what to do if a carbon monoxide alarm goes off

Larger apartment complexes are often the worst offenders, with many property managers using in-house maintenance staff rather than a professional HVAC company to keep up with vital repairs and replacements for furnaces and other items.

Proving Liability for CO Poisoning

To make a claim against a landlord, a tenant must show that the landlord’s actions or inactions were careless or contributed to the harmful incident. There are a few ways to do this:

  1. The landlord ignored health and safety codes. State and local governments have minimum safety standards that must be met when it comes to carbon monoxide safety. If a landlord violates these codes and a tenant is poisoned by carbon monoxide as a result, the landlord may be found liable for negligence.
  2. The landlord failed to uphold a promise. If a landlord agrees (verbally or in writing) to provide a carbon monoxide detector or fix a broken item that is suspected of emitting CO but fails to do so, the court may find them liable for breach of contract.
  3. The landlord neglected necessary maintenance. Landlords in all states except Alabama are required under the warranty of habitability to provide tenants with rental properties that meet basic health and safety standards. A poisoned tenant can argue before a judge that the carbon monoxide leak or buildup was due to the landlord’s failure to provide a habitable rental.

Liability for a carbon monoxide accident isn’t always clear. Carbon monoxide poisoning may stem from poorly made products (which could result in a product liability claim) or another tenant’s negligence (they leave their car running in a closed garage).

Tenants injured by carbon monoxide poisoning should consult with a personal injury attorney as soon as possible to discuss the facts of their case before signing anything or talking to their landlord.

What Is Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas produced from burning fuel sources like wood, charcoal, propane, and gasoline. In outdoor spaces, carbon monoxide is relatively harmless unless the fumes are breathed in directly. Improperly ventilated spaces, especially ones that are sealed or enclosed, may trap carbon monoxide, allowing it to accumulate to dangerous levels.

Carbon monoxide poisoning occurs when the gas builds up in your bloodstream as you breathe it in. The more carbon monoxide in the air, the more it displaces the oxygen you need to survive (red blood cells also pick up CO faster than they do oxygen).

Prolonged carbon monoxide exposure can cause serious tissue damage and death.

Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Because carbon monoxide is mostly undetectable to human senses, it can be particularly dangerous for people who are drunk or asleep. The longer a person is exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide, the more likely they will suffer permanent brain damage due to lack of oxygen and possibly die if they don’t realize there is a problem.

Signs of carbon monoxide poisoning typically include:

  • Headache
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Feeling like you have the flu
  • Trouble breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Confusion
  • Blurry vision
  • Loss of consciousness

If you suspect you or someone else is suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning, seek fresh air immediately and call for emergency medical care as this is a life-threatening condition. Do not return to the area until the leak has been found and fixed.

What Causes Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?

Poisoning by carbon monoxide occurs from inhaling combustion fumes. The gas accumulates in your bloodstream as you breathe it in, preventing life-sustaining oxygen from reaching your organs and tissues.

carbon monoxide infographic

Common sources of carbon monoxide include fireplaces, stoves, running automobiles, grills, portable generators, water heaters, furnaces, dryers, blocked vents, and chimneys.

Complications From Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Depending on a person’s age, health conditions, and length of exposure, carbon monoxide poisoning can quickly cause:

  • Heart damage (possibly leading to life-threatening cardiac issues)
  • Permanent brain damage
  • Fetal death or miscarriage
  • Death

Those most at risk of carbon monoxide complications include unborn babies, children, the elderly, people with chronic health conditions (such as anemia, heart disease, and breathing problems), and those who fall unconscious from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Treatment for Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

First, get outside to fresh air if you develop symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. Once you are in the emergency room, medical professionals will take a blood sample to confirm the level of carbon monoxide saturation.

Treatment may involve breathing pure oxygen through an oxygen mask (if you are unable to breathe on your own, you may be intubated and placed on a ventilator so the machine can breathe for you).

In some cases, hyperbaric oxygen therapy is recommended. This type of therapy involves breathing pure oxygen in a pressurized chamber, which speeds up the replacement of carbon monoxide in the blood with oxygen. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is used in severe carbon monoxide cases to protect vulnerable organs like the heart and brain.

How to Prevent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

There are several simple ways to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning in your home:

  • Install carbon monoxide detectors and change the batteries twice a year like you would for a smoke detector.
  • Open the garage door before starting your car, and do not leave the car running inside an attached garage, as the fumes could seep into the house.
  • Use gas stoves and appliances as intended — do not use gas-fueled ovens, stoves, or space heaters to heat your home or an enclosed space.
  • Keep combustion appliances and engines (such as furnaces, charcoal grills, water heaters, portable generators, wood-burning stoves, etc.) properly vented.
  • Keep vents and chimneys in good repair.
  • Use caution and follow instructions when using methylene chloride (a solvent typically found in paint and varnishes), as it can break down into carbon monoxide when inhaled.

Free Carbon Monoxide Case Evaluation

Carbon monoxide poisoning is a life-threatening situation and should not be dismissed or taken lightly. If you or someone you love was injured at an apartment complex due to CO poisoning due to no fault of their own, contact our carbon monoxide injury lawyers at Gary Martin Hays & Associates for a free case evaluation. We hold negligent landlords and property owners accountable and get injured tenants the just compensation they deserve.

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