Ask Andy: Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Lawsuits



Good morning and welcome to Ask Andy. This is a daily podcast about personal injury practice in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I’m Andrew Neuwirth. This is not legal advice, but hopefully it is somewhat helpful. So we are very close to approaching 10,000 downloads for the podcast, and I greatly appreciate that. If you are interested in cotton gloves, I give away cotton gloves and hand sanitizer with my firm’s logo on it. If you want that, send me an email. Give me a buzz. Something. So I wanted to talk to you today about a uniquely kind of cold weather month thing, which is carbon monoxide poisoning. So carbon monoxide poisoning is generally kind of easily avoided in theory by having a carbon monoxide detector, which reminds me I got to go put mine in because the winter months are here. So carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that has a lot of really ugly kind of effects on the human body. So briefly, carbon monoxide is not carbon dioxide, which is what you breathe out. Carbon monoxide is a byproduct of burning fossil fuels, so burning oil or natural gas smoking, actually. But basically, the problem with carbon monoxide is it prevents your body from carrying oxygen. So, you know, where does this happen? What is there to watch out for? Well, first of all, the most common incidents we see are people doing things that are not too, you know, bright or should give you pause.

Like, don’t run a frickin generator inside your garage. Don’t heat your home from your stove. You know, these are sort of things. Sometimes in poor areas, people can’t afford their heat, but the gas is cheap, so they run their stove to keep the house warm at night. I don’t know the whole generator in the garage thing. I never really understood that, you know, people commit suicide with carbon monoxide because it’s basically, you know, you just fill your garage with gas and it’s kind of a painless way to die, I guess. But it is that lethal that if you inhale enough of it, you will die. So what are the situations that I encounter that a personal injury case as well? The majority of them and I sort of handle one or two of them a year is where furnaces and hot water heaters or boilers in your basement are not properly vented or not properly set up, and this is something you’re just not going to kind of as a layperson, unless you’re an HVAC guy or gal, you’re not going to be able to figure out what the problem is. So that’s why you’ve got the CO detector. What’s the problem that you can’t figure out? Well, the problem you can’t figure out is that there’s a certain BTU rating on your furnace that heats your home. There’s a certain BTU rating on your hot water heater.

There’s, you know, a certain BTU rating on your washer dryer and all your appliances in the basement. Ok. When you put all those things together, you know, maybe you need one hundred and fifty thousand, you’ve got one hundred and fifty thousand BTUs. Those BTUs put out a certain amount of carbon monoxide. That carbon monoxide is poisonous. So what do we do with it? Well, it’s supposed to be vented through the flue in your chimney and out to the fresh air, and then you don’t have to worry about it if it’s properly vented and the system’s properly set up, no big deal. So, you know, when do I get involved? I get involved when someone doesn’t set their system up properly. The HVAC guy who installs a new furnace or boiler doesn’t calculate the BTUs and the needs of the room. Oftentimes, you know, in easier examples, when you shove the furnace and the hot water heater in a small closet, there’s not enough fresh air in there for the system to function properly, and it starts kind of gassing carbon monoxide into the space. And then all of a sudden, you know, it’s circulating hot air, but it’s got hot air with carbon monoxide in it. You don’t want that. So, you know, that’s kind of the function of what what is happening. That’s bad. The CO detector should alert and tell you to leave. The treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning is very simple.

The basic treatment is fresh air, so open the windows go outside. That’s what 911 will tell you. They’ll tell you to go outside. Now, what of this kind of more scary situations are when you get a big dose of carbon monoxide and you’re asleep and it’s cold outside and you have your windows closed, you know, pretty quickly, a situation can go from bad to worse to dangerous. So I had a case, you know, a bunch of years ago where there was a exactly what I talked about a poorly vented HVAC system. It was throwing carbon dioxide into a small house. A guy was asleep. He was unconscious. Basically, he was asleep, but he was super nauseous. He went to the bathroom to throw up. He just thought he had had some bad food at night, and it turned out it was carbon monoxide poisoning that was making him nauseous. And then his daughter had the same symptoms and they were basically, you know, semi rendered unconscious, fell down the stairs, crawled outside. And ultimately that became a case because, you know, the system was poorly set up and there was a pretty serious injury. Now what’s the injury that we worry about? Well, the primary injury we worry about in these situations is short term memory loss, and it’s a very hard thing to put a finger on for the lawyer because, you know, most people don’t have a baseline, you know, memory test before the poisoning incident.

All the client can usually tell you is I’ve got short term memory loss. Ok, well, how do you, you know, kind of playing devil’s advocate as the lawyer waiting for the, you know, trying to evaluate the case like, well, what else do you got? Because, you know, that’s something that anecdotally is fine. Like, you can tell me a lot of people clients will tell me, for example, like I can watch a movie like, I’ll watch The Shining and then I’ll three days later, I’ll say, Hey, it’s around Halloween, let’s watch The Shining. And the family will say to me, we just watched that two days ago, and I’ve totally forgotten about it. And it’s not just old age forgotten about. It’s like something that, you know, I knew a guy who who was a cook, and he said, I can’t remember recipes anymore, and that’s my job to be a cook. That was a problem. So and that was, you know, from carbon monoxide poisoning, potentially. So, you know, there are other kind of diffuse or nebulous effects, but the primary one is short term memory loss because for whatever reason, the carbon monoxide hits the area in your brain that forms short term memories, not long term. Another problem is that people who are have poor lung function or a preexisting lung condition that can be affected people with a preexisting heart condition can be affected because the carbon monoxide prevents the heart muscle from collecting oxygen properly in the heart muscle than is injured.

And in a normal person, that injury can recover. But in, you know, a heart compromised person, they can’t. So, you know, people with prior cardiac problems or prior lung problems will suffer a much worse injury for the same dose of carbon monoxide. For some reason, children don’t get affected as much. I don’t know if it’s because they have faster breathing or shallow or breathing. I don’t really understand that as well. But, you know, a lot of times with carbon monoxide poisoning, you’re going to see basically a short term memory loss from, you know, a pretty solid dose of carbon monoxide. The challenges for the lawyer are that, you know, if the treatment is fresh air, then by the time someone gets to the hospital, they’ve been breathing either oxygen from EMS or fresh air, from driving to the hospital. And they’re the actual readings that reflect the poisoning are far lower than they would have been had they, you know, breathed into a detector at their house. So, you know, it’s an interesting little conundrum. You’ve got to kind of work back and figure out what someone’s actual dosage would have been. And sometimes you can look at symptoms, you know, was there loss of consciousness? Was there, dizziness? Was there nausea, vomiting? How long had this been going on? All sorts of small facts become significant in the context of that carbon monoxide poisoning.

Basically, you can sort of figure it out. People will recover usually from the initial effects, you know, within 12 to 15 hours as long as they’re given, you know, full dose of oxygen. Sometimes people who are in real distress are put in a hyperbaric chamber, which they use for like divers. And, you know, periodically there are cases of death. When I was a kid, there’s a Vitas Gerulitis died because his pool heater. He was a pro tennis player at the time. His pool heater was poorly vented and he fell asleep in his pool house and he died. Sometimes, you know, in the more northeast PA regions where people are living in trailers, sometimes a poorly vented trailer that needs, you know, kerosene heat or, you know, propane heat will will sometimes die of carbon monoxide poisoning. So that’s pretty much, you know what to watch out for. The bottom line is get your system checked if you can afford it regularly. If not, get a carbon monoxide detector, and hopefully you will be OK. All right. Have a great day. This has been Ask Andy. This is sponsored by my law firm and Neuwirth Law Office in King of Prussia. We are in a suburb of Philadelphia. Have a great day.