Landlord Liability: CO2 Detectors Coming to a Rental Near You

Gear up for it. It’s coming. More state and local governments are requiring carbon monoxide detectors in residential rental units. Although your state may not require landlords to install CO2 detectors in their rentals (nearly half the states now do), owners can still be held civilly or criminally liable should a tenant be subjected to the deadly gas.

The story is here. This case was about a mother and her three children who were found dead from poison air.

In a rare occurrence, Toledo, Ohio landlord Steven Snow was charged with four counts of reckless homicide, highlighting a growing responsibility being put on landlords who let tenants live in dangerous conditions.

Investigators in Ohio say Snow didn’t intend to harm anyone but knew the dangers of running a generator when he gave it to the family in the rental home near downtown Toledo. He also removed it from the house before police arrived, they said.

Snow has pleaded not guilty and could face 20 years in prison if convicted. A judge on Monday postponed a pretrial hearing because Snow’s attorney was sick.

Snow insists that McDaniel told him she was at the house March 22 waiting for the electricity to be turned on and that he dropped off the generator to warm the place up temporarily. He told The Associated Press in an interview the day of his indictment that he didn’t know she planned to stay overnight.

“All I was trying to do was to give them a better house and a better place,” said Snow, who had known McDaniel for 20 years and said he thought of her and the children as family.

Family members of McDaniel say Snow knows he made a mistake and needs to be held accountable.

The house was a fixer-upper Snow bought last December and has been working on since then. When he learned that his friend, McDaniel and her children couldn’t afford the rent where they were living, Snow offered the unfinished house to her despite the fact the electricity had not been hooked up yet. He brought a gasoline-powered generator to the house to power an electric space heater to warm up the place when McDaniel came over to see it. The generator wound up running in the kitchen while McDaniel and her kids fell asleep in the other room. Snow found them all dead the next morning.

Ohio has no law requiring CO2 detectors. Snow says he didn’t know McDaniel was planning to spend the night in the house. Still, Snow is criminally charged with reckless homicide and facing 20 years in prison. Why? Because somebody has to pay.

Family members of McDaniel say Snow knows he made a mistake and needs to be held accountable.

“Tammy didn’t make the right decision, and she paid the ultimate price,” said McDaniel’s sister, Tonia Wertz. “We don’t want [Snow] on death row, but he has to hold some responsibility.”

* * * * *

In Toledo, Wertz and her sister Paula McDaniel both think Snow knew the family was staying in the house that night.

I don’t know how deep Snow’s pockets are, but this thing could bankrupt him even if he is exonerated. [UPDATE: He wasn’t.] Just getting all lawyered up for the trial of your life can take everything you’ve got. And, even if he is not found criminally responsible, McDaniel’s family could sue Snow civilly after the criminal proceedings are ended. Think: Goldman v. Simpson. (Yes, that Goldman and O. J. Simpson.)

It’s time to go shopping for the next big thing in risk management for landlords: carbon monoxide detectors.

Dozens of cities and states now have laws requiring carbon monoxide alarms or detectors in homes and apartments. An Oregon law that took effect in April requires landlords to provide alarms in rental units where there are potential carbon monoxide sources. Ohio has no law requiring detectors.

The concern among landlords is if they could be held accountable when a tenant removes a battery or notices a detector isn’t working but fails to notify anyone, said Scot Haislip, a lobbyist with the Arlington, Va.-based National Apartment Association, which represents about 50,000 multifamily housing companies.

A landlord in Jersey City, N.J., is facing fines over a lack of mandatory carbon monoxide sensors after two people died within weeks in one building this spring. Prosecutors are looking into whether they can file criminal charges.

Another landlord on New York’s Long Island pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide and was sentenced to one to three years in prison last year after three tenants died from carbon monoxide in 2007. Prosecutors said he set up a gas-powered generator after a utility company cut off the electricity.

Steven Snow could not have avoided these charges by holding title to each rental property in a separate legal entity, such as a limited liability company, limited partnership, land trust or even a “C” corporation. Better foresight of the potential risk, and insight for managing that risk, might have.

For others, though, in the face of civil litigation, it could mean the difference between losing a lawsuit and losing everything.

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