Landlord Liability for Carbon Monoxide Exposure

Landlords are liable for a tenant’s injuries from carbon monoxide poisoning in some—but not all—situations.

By , Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law

Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless, and tasteless gas that's poisonous to humans. Everything that burns fuel—including many fixtures and appliances found in rental properties—emits carbon monoxide. Small amounts of carbon monoxide usually aren't problematic, but large accumulations can be. Exposure to harmful levels of the gas can happen anywhere, including rental properties.

Because carbon monoxide is undetectable to humans, it poisons victims without warning—even in their sleep. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, headaches, and sometimes death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, carbon monoxide poisoning causes more than 20,000 emergency room visits and more than 400 deaths per year. The good news for landlords is that they can greatly reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning by installing carbon monoxide detectors and performing regular maintenance. When landlords implement a reasonable maintenance program and follow applicable state and local laws, they increase the chances that not only will accidents not occur, but if one happens, the landlord won't be held legally responsible for tenants' injuries. (Sometimes landlords are liable for injuries to guests or other people visiting the rental.)

Carbon Monoxide Poses a Risk In all Rental Properties

Most rental properties contain at least one item or fixture that emits carbon monoxide, such as gas appliances (ranges and water heaters), chimneys, and heating systems. Unsafe levels of carbon monoxide can accumulate when these items malfunction or aren't properly ventilated. Even when there's no source of carbon monoxide within the rental, there's probably one nearby. For example, emissions from gas-powered lawn mowers, idling vehicles parked outside, and gas grills can drift inside. Garages also pose a risk: Without proper ventilation, fumes from running cars accumulate, threatening anyone within the garage. Attached garages are especially dangerous, as the gas can travel into living and sleeping areas.

When Landlord Liability Is Likely

In general, a court won't hold a landlord liable for a tenant's being injured on the rental property unless the tenant can show that the landlord's action (or inaction) was careless and caused or contributed to the harmful situation. Carbon monoxide poisoning is no different: landlords aren't liable for every instance of exposure at their rentals. In the situations below, however, a court is likely to hold a landlord liable.

  • The landlord violated carbon monoxide detector laws. Many states and cities require landlords to install carbon monoxide detectors in rentals. Often, these laws also require landlords to maintain the detectors in working order (and replace them when necessary). Some statutes explicitly state that violators are liable for a victim's injuries, without the need for the injured person to prove carelessness. These laws are known as "negligence per se" laws. The injured person doesn't have to address the question of whether the landlord's behavior was careless—simply breaking the law is enough to establish negligence. Negligence per se laws are rare; most often, the injured person has to prove carelessness, as shown below.
  • The landlord violated health and safety codes. States and cities often dictate minimum standards for health and safety. For example, a city might require certain types of ventilation for gas ranges or regular maintenance of fireplaces in rentals. If a landlord violates health and safety codes and a tenant is poisoned by carbon monoxide as a result, the landlord will likely be liable. If the code involved was enacted to prevent carbon monoxide or similar sorts of poisoning, the landlord might be liable under negligence per se laws. Otherwise, the landlord might be liable under negligence laws, which require (unlike a negligence per se situation), the injured tenant to prove that not only were the landlord's actions unreasonable or careless, but they also were a substantial factor in causing the tenant's injuries. For example, when a detector fails to alert tenants of the presence of carbon monoxide, a landlord might be liable for the tenants' poisoning if the tenants can show that the landlord carelessly installed the detector, and that the faulty installation was a substantial factor in their poisoning.
  • The landlord failed to uphold a promise. When a landlord agrees to provide or maintain a carbon monoxide detector (perhaps in the lease or a verbal agreement), but fails to do so, a court could find the landlord liable under a breach of contract theory—even if the law doesn't require landlords to provide or maintain detectors.
  • The landlord neglected maintenance. All states (except Alabama) recognize the implied warranty of habitability, a promise on the part of the landlord that courts and judges have silently written into residential leases (even when the leases don't reference the subject). The warranty requires that landlords provide tenants with rentals that meet basic health and safety standards. When a tenant is poisoned by carbon monoxide due to a landlord's failure to provide a habitable rental, a court might find the landlord liable.

Determining who's liable for a tenant's exposure to carbon monoxide is rarely simple, though. Personal injury attorneys specialize in evaluating situations such as these and can help both landlords and tenants pursue or defend carbon monoxide exposure claims.

When Landlord Liability Is Less Clear

Many times, a landlord's liability for carbon monoxide exposure isn't obvious. In these situations, a jury must consider and weigh many factors.

Say, for example, that an appliance that was in good working order at the beginning of the tenancy. But after a while it malfunctioned and began to emit excess carbon monoxide. The tenant was aware that the appliance wasn't working right, but didn't tell her landlord right away. She started to feel ill and thought she had the flu. She happened to run into her landlord in the hallway and told him about the broken appliance. He waited a few days before fixing it and, by that time, the tenant was in the hospital. Could she expect to collect money damages to compensate her for her injuries, lost wages, and pain and suffering?

A jury could find that the tenant's failure to promptly tell her landlord about the broken appliance contributed to her injuries (when injured people do things that make their situations worse, they tend to collect less in damages). On the other hand, her landlord's delay in shutting down or fixing the appliance arguably made her injuries worse. In order to assign relative responsibility, a judge would have to weigh the facts on both sides and consider the state's law on contributory or comparative fault. Incidentally, the landlord in this situation could have improved his chances of not being found responsible if the lease required tenants to immediately notify landlords of any needed repairs. When a tenant doesn't take advantage of the landlord's stated desire to promptly take care of business, a judge could take this into consideration when assigning blame. And of course, once on notice, the landlord should have responded immediately (by disconnecting the appliance while waiting for repairs, for example).

This is just one example where the landlord's liability depends heavily on exactly what happened as well as the law where the tenant files the lawsuit. A local personal injury attorney can give both landlords and tenants an opinion about the facts leading to a tenant's carbon monoxide exposure, and explain the applicable law.

When Landlord Liability Is Unlikely

Landlords aren't responsible for injuries that result from something completely out of their control. For example, products are often recalled due to a design flaw or manufacturing error that makes them dangerous. Suppose that, unbeknownst to the landlord, a gas range in a rental has a design flaw that causes it to emit dangerous levels of carbon monoxide. It's unlikely that a court or jury would find the landlord liable for tenant injuries. Rather, the tenant might have grounds for a product liability claim against the manufacturer. (On the other hand, if the landlord received and ignored a recall notice from the manufacturer, the landlord might be at least partially liable for the tenant's injuries, depending on the circumstances.) An attorney specializing in product liability can help landlords and tenants who believe a defective product caused exposure to carbon monoxide in a rental.

Similarly, landlords aren't liable when a tenant's own behavior is the sole cause of carbon monoxide poisoning. For example, a tenant who gets sick from repairing his running vehicle in an enclosed garage is likely acting negligently. So long as no additional factors (such as a broken ventilation system) contributed to the carbon monoxide build-up, the tenant would be solely responsible for his injuries.

Getting Help for Carbon Monoxide Exposure

Tenants who believe they've been exposed to carbon monoxide should seek immediate medical care and consider contacting a personal injury attorney if they believe they were exposed to carbon monoxide in their rental.

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