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>> Editor’s Note: The names, location and details of this case (as stated below) have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals involved.
Two Killed by Carbon Monoxide: Home Inspector Blamed
By Kendra Budd, Associate Editor
For decades, home inspectors have been gently reminded to pay careful attention to smoke alarms and carbon monoxide (CO) detectors–especially noting any deficiencies in their operation as well as when they are absent altogether. Many experts advise that the state and federal standards requiring these important systems exist for a reason.
A recent case in which a young couple died from carbon monoxide poisoning while they slept, highlights the life and death importance of these simple alarms–and brings this issue front and center for the home inspection community.
Here’s how it happened.
A Deadly Mistake
John and Suzy Smith were a young couple and first-time homeowners, living in their home for just over 18 months. On the night in question, they planned a dinner out with friends and were hurrying to get home, get ready, and head out.
In a rush to get in her husband’s car, Suzy left her Subaru in the garage–key in the ignition and still idling. When the couple returned from dinner, John parked his car outside on the driveway. They retired for the evening to their third-floor master bedroom suite and went to bed.
All through the evening and into the night, the Subaru sat idling–pumping the garage, and then the home, full of carbon monoxide.
The result was that the Smiths, along with their pets, were all found dead the very next day. Suzy’s car was still running in the garage when police arrived on the scene. Lab tests confirmed the cause of death for both John and Suzy was “Carbon Monoxide Toxicity.”
After a thorough investigation, detectives found five hard-wired alarms in the ceiling throughout the townhome but all were only smoke detectors. Not a single carbon monoxide alarm was found on the property.
The couple was well-known in their small community, and news of their death was covered extensively by state and local news alike. The news of such a young couple losing their lives just as they were starting a new life together hit the community hard.
As you might expect, it didn’t take long for both John’s and Suzy’s parents to hire a lawyer and start going after all the real estate professionals involved.
As it turns out, both the appraiser and the home inspector, had each independently inspected the home 18 months prior–both mistakenly reported a few of the smoke alarms present at the home as being CO detectors.
The home inspector had specifically written that he had inspected the carbon monoxide detectors and further indicated that they were provided in the correct locations, within 15 feet from each bedroom where they can wake residents from sleeping.
But it was not so. Consequently, both the appraiser and home inspector involved ended up on the receiving end of a “wrongful death” legal claim.
The legal team for the parents of the deceased young adults (plaintiffs) alleged that the home inspector, Jason Jones, had negligently inspected the Smiths’ home and had reported the presence of a CO detector when in fact, none were present. Unfortunately for Jones, in his Inspection report he used the same photos for both pictures labeled “smoke alarm” and “CO detector”.
The plaintiff’s attorneys further argued that the law requiring carbon monoxide detectors in homes was increasingly necessary because, “newer motor vehicles run quieter and smoother” and the “technological advances have lessened the required interaction and sensory feedback between operator and vehicle in driving and parking.”
The lawyers also pointed to the fact that home inspectors are required to report on the presence of CO detectors in their national standards. For example, the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) Standards states that home inspectors are required to describe the “Presence or absence of smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms.”
The combination of these items gave the plaintiff’s attorneys a strong claim against both the appraiser and the home inspector that they had incorrectly reported the presence of a CO detector (which never actually existed), and consequently that this negligent misrepresentation contributed to the wrongful death of the Smiths.
Ultimately, both cases were settled privately out of court.
CO Detector Versus Smoke Alarm
One important lesson in these cases is that it can be extremely difficult to tell the difference between CO detectors and smoke alarms. This is a reminder to home inspectors to take a second look at all CO detectors and smoke alarms–and to test them as well.
Rick Bunzel, home inspector and Washington firefighter, was able to give us some tips on how to tell the difference between the two detectors and additional safety tips on smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors.
For starters, the difference between a smoke alarm and a CO detector is quite simple. “The item will be clearly labeled, written on the exterior shell of the device, so you’ll be able to see it easily,” advises Bunzel. However, this can be hard to read because the signage could be the same color as the shell, so it’s incredibly important for you to get close enough to the alarm or CO detector to read it clearly (and test it!).
Bunzel reports that the alarms usually have different locations. “Carbon monoxide detectors are usually mounted high or low,” Bunzel says. He also points out though that this isn’t a foolproof method because carbon monoxide and oxygen have only one molecule difference, so they have the same density. “In theory you could place a CO detector anywhere but they’re usually out of reach of kids or pets–that’s a good rule of thumb,” says Bunzel. However, it is important not to rely on location alone, as that can lead to the same type of problems encountered by Jones above.
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Bunzel was also able to provide some helpful tips for inspectors as far as how to communicate with their clients about CO detectors. For example, Bunzel says that home inspectors should make it clear to their clients that they do not warrant if the device is working, just that it is there. “The test button doesn’t test the workability of a device–only the alarm. Just because it squeaks doesn’t mean it works,” reports Bunzel. This disclaimer language should be both in contract and in verbal communication to your client that it is their responsibility to test the workability of the device.
Another tip is to check the date of a CO alarm and smoke detector. “It’s amazing how many smoke alarms I find from the ’80s,” Bunzel says. Carbon monoxide alarms expire after 6 years, and smoke alarms expire after 10. In fact, the NFPA requires smoke alarms to be replaced after 10 years. Both home inspectors and homeowners should be checking these dates.
However, as a home inspector it is imperative you are making your client aware of the expiration. “We should be calling them out if they’re older than 10 years. From a safety perspective we need to be doing that,” Bunzel warns. In his work as a firefighter, he tells us he has seen too many expired alarms. He keeps it simple by stating, “Having working alarms that are within their lifespan saves lives.” This is the code every home inspector should be living by, argues Bunzel.
Isaac Peck, Senior Broker of OREP Insurance, a leading provider of home inspector insurance, says home inspectors should recommend in their reports that the homeowner test their CO detectors on a regular basis. First Alert, a leading manufacturer of CO detectors, offers homeowners the following advice on their website: “It is important to test your alarms regularly, but it is suggested to test them at least once monthly. If your carbon monoxide alarm has replaceable batteries, they should be changed at least every 6 months.”
Home inspectors should consider recommending the same, says Peck. “This puts the onus on the homeowner to test and maintain the CO detector. You definitely want to accurately report the presence or absence of a CO detector, but also be sure to disclaim its functionality AND recommend regular testing of the device. These types of claims do happen and home inspectors should take note,” advises Peck.
This case serves as an incredibly potent reminder of the deadly consequences that can result when CO detectors either malfunction and/or are not present. Since home inspectors are required by most national and local inspection standards to check for (and test) CO detectors, this recent tragedy shows how important this issue is for the home inspector community.
The case also shows how even a very small oversight or mistake can turn into a claim. Peck says that even very experienced inspectors sometimes overlook things. “Nobody is perfect 100 percent of the time. If your firm is doing 200, 300, or more inspections a year, mistakes can happen. Thankfully, both the appraiser and home inspector were carrying E&O insurance and did not have to face these wrongful death legal claims alone,” reports Peck. “No one can say for sure if a more thorough report could have helped avert this tragedy but it would have certainly helped defend the claim.”
One thing to note is that many home inspector E&O policies actually exclude Carbon Monoxide from their policies! OREP’s flagship program includes $100,000 of Carbon Monoxide coverage at no extra charge (visit OREP.org to learn more).
Looking for carbon monoxide detectors is a very small part of your home inspection, but it is of utmost importance. In this case, both the appraiser and the home inspector cut corners, improperly called the smoke alarm a carbon monoxide detector, and as a consequence became entangled in a nasty wrongful death legal claim. As a home inspector, you know inspecting a home requires careful diligence, time and a keen eye.
Make sure that you’re taking careful note of the alarms and detectors, as well as their dates and location. An accurate report not only saves lives, but spares you the headache of facing a claim against you. Stay safe out there!
About the Author
Kendra Budd is the Associate Editor and Marketing Coordinator for Working RE magazine. She graduated with a BA in Theatre and English from Western Washington University, and with an MFA in Creative Writing from Full Sail University. She is currently based in Seattle, WA.
Real-Life Inspector Lawsuits and How to Protect Yourself
Presenter: Isaac Peck, President of OREP
Isaac Peck, President of OREP Insurance Services, shares his insights and advice gained over nearly 10 years of providing risk management and E&O insurance for home inspectors. You will not hear many of these insights anywhere else.
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