Late last month, the Best Western Blue Ridge Plaza Hotel in Boone, North Carolina reopened after being closed for two months since the death of 11-year-old Jeffrey Williams from carbon monoxide poisoning. We now know that his death, and those of an elderly Washington state couple, David and Shirley Jenkins, two months earlier, was caused by a malfunctioning indoor pool heater that leaked CO into their room. Ever since this story broke, we've also learned that the medical examiner handling the investigation of the Jenkinses' death failed to tell local authorities about the gravity of the situation, and the pool heater was installed without a permit.
Well, the latest story on this tragedy from The Charlotte Observer suggests the hotel's reopening may be short-lived. This morning's Observer reports that the hotel's maintenance staff apparently ignored recommendations from the heater's manufacturer to install CO detectors if it was used indoors.
Based on the model number of the heater, a customer service representative at the manufacturer supplied the Observer an owner’s manual for a Jandy Lite2 pool and spa heater.Paul Culpepper, the attorney for the hotel's management company, Appalachian Property Management, conceded that the maintenance staff more than likely didn't read the manual because the heater had been moved to a pool that already had a heater. He also admitted that the hotel didn't get a permit to move the heater because it didn't know at the time that it was required. But wouldn't you think it would have been someone's responsibility to make those checks beforehand?
The front page of the manual carries a warning that says that the manufacturer “strongly recommends” installation of carbon monoxide detectors near the appliance when used for an indoor pool. Another warning inside the manual says that improper installation could cause “severe injury or death” from carbon monoxide.
Culpepper also tried to fob off responsibility for this tragedy on the hotel's contractors.
In a new revelation, (Culpepper) said that the hotel’s original plans called for carbon monoxide detectors in rooms that had fireplaces, but the contractor instead installed monitors to detect combustible gas. The hotel didn’t discover the mistake until after the deaths, he said.Maybe it's just me, but it sounds like Culpepper just admitted that his client was too cheap to inspect the hotel before it opened to make sure everything was installed according to specifications. And because of that, Appalachian Property Management now stands to pay the Jenkins and Williams families several times more in damages than it would have cost to install carbon monoxide detectors the first time--an amount that will likely put it out of business.
Room 225, where the three guests died, had a natural gas fireplace.
“My client relied on the architects, contractors and engineers for the design criteria that was needed,” Culpepper said.
The story also reveals that Boone town officials may be on the hook for damages as well. In February 2012, the hotel converted almost entirely to natural gas, except for rooms that had fireplaces. Town officials could have spotted the lack of CO detectors when they inspected the natural gas conversion, but didn't.
Boone police say that they're preparing a report to the Watauga County district attorney to determine whether criminal charges should be pursued. But if this story is accurate, it looks like any civil suits filed in this case will be a slam-dunk for the Jenkins and Williams families.