A three-judge panel in an appeals court in Maryland heard a lawsuit against two heating, ventilation & air conditioning repair (HVAC) service providers accused of negligence for failing to warn five occupants of a home that carbon monoxide was present. The death of these five people is being blamed on Caviness Mechanical Services, Parrish Services Inc., and Santiago Navarro, one of the home’s owners. The companies are accused of failing to exercise reasonable care to prevent the fatalities.
The Court of Special Appeals reversed a lower court ruling allowing summary judgment in favor of the defendants. They found that the companies had inspected the conditions of the home’s boiler and hot water heater system and that there was sufficient evidence that they should have recognized the dangers and taken reasonable steps to correct or warn the home occupants.
The home located in Oxon Hill, Maryland had ventilation in the bathroom that was designed to remove carbon monoxide from the boiler and water heater through the roof exhaust outlet. It is alleged that a contractor improperly connected this fan and that carbon monoxide filled the home. The claim of wrongful death was originally filed in a Prince George County Circuit Court.
Lower Court Findings
The court granted summary judgment for both Caviness and Parrish and Navarro was dismissed as a defendant in the matter. The plaintiffs quickly filed appeals against all three parties. The appeals panel was tasked with determining if the lower court ruling was an error. Caviness and Parrish contended that a home warranty contract should have absolved them from liability in the matter. The question became whether these companies should have had a duty to care based and (should have) recognized the rust and perforations that existed in many of the home’s pipes.
The claims state that the service technicians should have detected the presence of holes and rust along the piping from the water heater and boiler and warned the home occupants of this potentially hazardous condition. The claim states that recognition of these obviously poor conditions would have then led the technicians to uncover the other exhaust problem. This further investigation by a competent technician would also have allowed them to recognize that the exhaust problem was indeed life-threating.
Caviness accepted the assertion that the rusted components would be an indication of possible carbon monoxide leakage. They said that the service technician who was there to repair the furnace would have looked at the “safeties and flues” as part of a routine inspection. An expert for Parrish also provided testimony that a visible system inspection was standard practice in these situations. The appeals panel found that sufficient evidence did exist to show that the service providers had a responsibility in the matter.
Some of the facts regarding carbon monoxide are as follows:
- It is a toxic gas that is generated from “incomplete combustion”
- The gas can be the result of malfunctions in boilers, furnaces, motor vehicles, and more
- Because the gas has no odor, taste, or color, it is particularly dangerous
- The Center for Disease Control says that carbon monoxide detectors should always be installed close to where housing occupants sleep
- Both oil and gas style furnaces should be inspected annually
- Portable power generators should always be positioned over 20 feet from the home
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