Simple routine maintenance might eliminate up to 90 percent of the carbon monoxide poisonings in America’s schools, yet high CO levels are a persistent and deadly problem.

Most states do not require carbon monoxide detectors in schools, apartment buildings, or other structures. The most recent federal law in this area, the Nicholas and Zachary Burt Memorial Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Prevention Act of 2021, encourages states to adopt tougher standards but does not require the use of CO detectors. Faulty boilers, generators, heaters, and other fuel-burning sources usually cause dangerously high CO levels.

According to the CDC, unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning kills more than 400 Americans each year and sends 20,000 to hospital emergency rooms across America. 

Effects of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

CO is a colorless, odorless, and fatal gas. The most common symptoms of CO poisoning are headache, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion. CO symptoms are often described as “flu-like.” If you breathe in a lot of CO it can make you pass out or kill you. Carbon monoxide is especially dangerous in homes. People who are sleeping or drunk can die from CO poisoning before they have symptoms. Poor ventilation, even in schools and other relatively open buildings, often causes unsafe CO gas buildup.

Inhaling carbon monoxide is a little like smoke inhalation during fires. The CO replaces oxygen in the body’s red blood cells. If that happens, oxygen-starved tissues and organs quickly begin shutting down. 

Mostly because they breathe faster than adults, children are in a high-risk carbon monoxide poisoning category. Other at-risk people  include:

  • Older Adults: The effects of CO poisoning are worse for people over 65. These individuals are more likely to develop brain damage.
  • Unborn Children: Fetal red blood cells soak up carbon monoxide much faster than the red blood cells in children or adults. As a result, unborn babies are more susceptible to harmful carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Heart Patients: Cardiovascular issues, like anemia and breathing problems, are more likely to get sick from exposure to carbon monoxide.

CO levels above the Environmental Protection Agency’s threshold, which is 9 ppm, cause injury in eight hours. High CO levels are fatal in under five minutes.

Building a Case

Public and private property owners usually have a duty of reasonable care to provide a safe environment and conduct regular safety inspections. This high duty of care applies if the victim is an invitee. Basically, invitees are people who have permission to be on the property and who benefit the owner. 

Schoolchildren are clearly invitees. Whether they like it or not, they have permission to be at school. Additionally, since the state pays schools for student attendance, there is an economic benefit. Local schools encourage “perfect attendance” for a reason.

The benefit could also be non-economic. If Sandy invites Jeff over for dinner, Sandy benefits from social interaction, even if Jeff isn’t one of her favorite people.

Additionally, a New York personal injury lawyer must prove the landowner knew or should have known, about the injury-causing hazard. This element is often difficult to prove in carbon monoxide poisoning cases. According to the rules of logic, a negative cannot prove a positive. If Jeff doesn’t have his high school transcript in hand, that doesn’t mean he was a dropout. Likewise, if a landowner doesn’t have a CO detector, that doesn’t mean s/he knew the CO level was dangerously high.

Assumption of the risk is one of the most common defenses in these cases. If Timmy goes on a field trip and he gets sick because of high CO levels on the bus, the permission slip/liability waiver doesn’t absolve the school district. The assumption of the risk defense only applies if the victim voluntarily assumed a known risk. Most likely, Timmy voluntarily went on the field trip. But CO poisoning is not a known risk.

Procedural Issues

For the most part, New York has waived its sovereign immunity, meaning that victims injured in schools or other public buildings can sue the city, county, state, or whoever controlled that building. However, some procedural hurdles remain.

For example, in these cases, a New York personal injury attorney must normally file a notice of claim before filing court paperwork. The notice gives the school district or other defendant a chance to settle the matter quietly out of court. These settlement negotiations often do not bear fruit. The defendant doesn’t have a duty to negotiate in good faith. Low-ball and “take it or leave it” offers are common.

Once the case goes to mediation, the duty to negotiate in good faith applies. It’s hard for victims to wait until this late in the process to settle their claims. However, if they settle too early, they are usually settling for less.

Injury victims are entitled to substantial compensation. For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury attorney in New York, contact Napoli Shkolnik PLLC. We handle injury claims on a nationwide basis.