A lawsuit over the deaths of five people from carbon monoxide poisoning at an Oxon Hill, Maryland house after the home’s bathroom ventilation fan was connected to the flue will move forward after Maryland’s intermediate appeals court reinstated the claims.
When someone in the house left the bathroom fan on, because of the improper fan connection, carbon monoxide backed up and entered the rooms occupied by the victims.
The victims’ families sued the home owner, the home warranty companies and the local contractors who had done some work on the house, alleging negligence and wrongful death.
The claims against the home owner and the home warranty companies were dismissed.
The Prince George’s County Circuit Court then granted summary judgment to the remaining defendants. However, Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals disagreed and ruled that the circuit court made a mistake when it found that the home warranty contract between the home owner and the warranty company absolved the contractors from any obligation to address rust and holes on the flue pipes of the heating and hot water system and that the court made a mistake when it found that the local contractors did not have an obligation under the law to address rust and holes on the flue pipes of the heating and hot water systems.
In 2010, one of the homeowners contacted Homesure Services Inc. to report that the heating system was not working properly. Homesure sent over a local contractor to do the work.
A few months later, Homesure was contacted with a complaint that the hot water heater was not working. Homesure sent over another local contractor to do the repairs.
The service agreement with Homesure provided that it covered the mechanical components of the primary central hearing system and the mechanical components of the water heater but did not cover chimneys, flues and liners of the primary central heating system or the water heater. The company provided a referral to an independent contractor for repairs.
The plaintiffs claimed in court papers that the service technicians should have discovered that there were holes and rust on the flue through which the exhaust from both the boiler and hot water heater vented and that they should have warned the occupants of the home that carbon monoxide poisoning could occur.
They claimed that the service technicians should have investigated the cause of the rust-damaged flue pipe or informed the occupants of the home that the boiler and hot water heater were not safe to use until the investigation was performed. They also said that an investigation into the cause of the rust-damaged flue pipe would have revealed the life-threatening connection between the bathroom ventilation fan exhaust and the flue for the boiler and hot water heater.
On appeal, the surviving family members said the trial court should not have ruled that the home warranty contract absolved the local contractors from an obligation under the law to address rust and holes in the flue pipes. They also argued that the trial court should not have ruled that the local contractors had no obligation under the law to address rust or holes in the flue pipes. The appeals court agreed with their arguments.
There was a foreseeable risk of personal injury or death because of the dangerous condition, the court said. Under such circumstances, the service technicians had a duty to exercise reasonable care in performing their work, which included a duty to inspect the visible portions of the flue for signs of rust and corrosion and, if significant rust or corrosion was found, to either warn the homeowner or take other reasonable steps to protect the occupants of the home from carbon monoxide escaping from the flue.
Relying on a case decided by Maryland’s higher court, the court said noted that “in those occupations requiring peculiar skill, a tort duty to act with reasonable care will be imposed on those who hold themselves out as possessing the requisite skill.”
The local service providers argued that they had no obligation under the law to inspect the visible portion of the flue or to address rust or corrosion because it did not create the dangerous condition – the improperly installed bathroom fan that had been spliced into the flue that was used to vent the exhaust from the boiler and hot water heater.
But, one of the local service provider’s owner and CEO said service technicians are trained to look for problems not covered by the home warranty, including rusted or corroded flue pipes, which they can fix in order to increase income. And, a company technician testified that it was standard practice among plumbers to “do a checkover of the flue to make sure it was intact and not full of holes and stuff.”
Another company expert said HVAC professionals “should be” trained to know that one of the dangers of gas-fired appliances is the risk of carbon monoxide and that he would expect an HVAC professional to determine if the venting system is compromised by rust.
The court also observed that, balancing the significant risk of personal injury or death associated with the escape of carbon monoxide from a rusted or corroded flue used to vent a gas boiler or hot water heater against the minimal burden to HVAC professionals, who can take advantage of training and insurance, is a great benefit to the community.
As a result, the court concluded that the case should be sent to the jury and reversed the grant of summary judgement.
If you or a loved one has suffered a personal injury, you should talk to a Baltimore personal injury lawyer. A Maryland personal injury lawyer can help you to get properly compensated for your damages. The attorneys at The Law Offices of Thomas J. Maronick have experience handling these cases. You can contact Thomas Maronick on his cellphone at 202.288.0167, the law office at 410.934.3007 or via our website for a free consultation.