Hotel Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Deaths Result in Corporate Guilty Plea Deal
Following a hotel carbon monoxide leak at a North Carolina Best Western in 2013, which resulted in the deaths of three guests staying in the same room several weeks apart, the corporate owner has agreed to a plea deal that will dissolve the company and allow one of its executives to avoid criminal manslaughter charges.
In April 2013, two elderly guests staying in room 225 of the Best Western Plus Blue Ridge Plaza hotel in Boone, North Carolina were discovered dead, but the cause of death remained a mystery until an 11 year old boy died in the same room about two months later.
Investigators determined that the 11 year old died from side effects of carbon monoxide exposure, which also caused his 49 year old mother to experience illness. A re-examination of the bodies of the elderly couple confirmed that their deaths were also the result of carbon monoxide poisoning.
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Appalachian Hospitality Management Corporation, which owned the hotel, agreed to enter a guilty plea this week to three counts of criminal manslaughter as a result of the hotel carbon monoxide deaths. Under terms of the deal, the company will be dissolved to avoid a trial and potential prison time for the corporation’s executive manager, Damon Mallatere.
Although the criminal investigation has been concluded, wrongful death lawsuits over the carbon monoxide leak continue to be pursued by the families of those killed in the two incidents.
The deaths all occurred in a hotel room that was directly above the mechanical closet for the pool heater. Boone police, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), and the North Carolina State board of Examiners of Plumbing, Heating and Fire Sprinkler Contractors all investigated the carbon monoxide deaths at the hotel and concluded the source of the gas leak was a faulty heating and ventilation system directly below the room, which caused the colorless and odorless gas to fill the room.
The first fatal incident occurred in April 2013, when Daryl Dean Jenkins, 72, and his wife Shirley Mae Jenkins, 72, were found dead in Room 225 at the hotel. The retired couple was traveling the country and visiting cousins in the tourist town of the Blue Ridge Mountains and had only been checked into the hotel for two days before they were found.
The couple’s death remained a mystery for several weeks, until 11 year old Jeffrey Lee Williams died in the exact same room on June 8, 2013, while he and his mother Jeannie Williams, 49, were driving to pick up Jeannie’s daughter at camp. After checking into the Best Western hotel for just one night, in Room 225, Jeffrey died of CO poisoning while lying in bed, and his mother Jeannie suffered severe CO injuries that caused her to be found unconscious on the bathroom floor. Jeannie survived, but was hospitalized for several days with severe side effects of carbon monoxide exposure.
According to Mallatere’s testimony, following the death of 11 year old Jeffrey, the manager ordered the maintenance supervisor to have someone check for natural gas leaks in the building and in the swimming pool area, in which a contractor confirmed that all systems were working properly and no natural gas leaks were discovered.
By January 2014, local authorities led by District Attorney Seth Banks and the Watauga County District Attorney’s Office had found sufficient evidence to issue indictments for manslaughter and assault charges.
On Monday, March 28, 2016, the Appalachian Hospitality Management Corporation pleaded guilty to the manslaughter and assault charges in an exchange to avoid trial and potential sentencing for manager Mallatere. The plea bargain also mandates that the corporation be dissolved immediately.
The guilty plea from Appalachian Hospitality Management Corporation could play a very important role for the aggrieved families that have both filed civil lawsuits alleging wrongful death against the corporation. The lawsuits filed by the children of Daryl and Shirley Jenkins and the other by Jeannie, the mother of deceased 11 year old Jeffrey, both seek damages from Best Western International and Appalachian Hospitality Management Corporation and any and all companies or individuals who worked on the heating system where the gas originated.
The two families jointly released an announcement after the guilty plea was accepted by the court, stating they would continue to bring light to the facts of what occurred at the hotel so that this incident can never happen to other visitors. In addition the families are advocating for a federal mandatory requirement of carbon monoxide detectors in every hotel room across the U.S.
Carbon monoxide is a lethal gas that is omitted from the incomplete burning of fuels such as coal, wood, charcoal, oil, kerosene, propane, and natural gas. The gas is colorless and odorless and cannot be detected without the use of a detection device, often leading to prolonged exposures which result in serious adverse health consequences or death.
Individuals exposed to carbon monoxide typically experience symptoms similar to the flu, with feelings of nausea, headaches, dizziness, drowsiness, and shortness of breath often being the first sign of problems. However, prolonged exposure may result in mental confusion, vomiting, loss of muscle coordination or control, loss of consciousness, and ultimately death. For individuals who survive or sleep through prolonged exposure, they may be left with devastating brain damage from carbon monoxide poisoning that impacts them for the rest of their lives.
The incident at the North Carolina Best Western raised concerns nationwide about hotel carbon monoxide poisoning risks, as most states have no requirements that detectors or alarms be placed in rooms where people stay. Several states have since passed new laws, including North Carolina’s General Assembly, which adopted new legislation following the 2013 deaths requiring carbon monoxide detectors in certain areas of hotels near fossil fuel burning appliances.
In recent years, there has been a growing effort to make carbon monoxide detectors as essential as smoke detectors throughout the U.S., with several states requiring the alarms in all rental homes and apartments, as well as new houses constructed.
Similarly, New York legislators passed a law known as the “Steve Nelson Law,” which requires carbon monoxide detectors in restaurants. However, that legislation was only introduced after carbon monoxide exposure at a New York Legal Sea Foods restaurant in 2014 resulted in injuries for 28 individuals and the death of Steve Nelswon, for whom the law was named.
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