Tenant Awarded $3.25 Million for Carbon Monoxide Alarm Violation

Failure to Install a carbon monoxide alarm in a rental property has resulted in a $3.25 Judgment against a Stevens Point Landlord, Pamalla Schneider in a March jury trial in Portage County Wisconsin.

By Attorney Gordon Johnson

Kayla Griffin was a 14-year old high school student when she and her father were severely poisoned by carbon monoxide in November of 2015. She was represented by Gordon Johnson of the Brain Injury Law Group and Attorney Randall Rozek of Milwaukee. After more than seven years, she received justice. Click here for the Portage County Clerks docket entries in this matter.

What makes poison so dangerous is the riddle of its onset, the disguise of its effect. Poison, almost by definition, doesn’t reveal its identity until it is too late. Carbon monoxide is a poison, and like other dangerous toxins, even emergency room care and diagnosis may not discover it, until the damage has been done. Thus, strict precautions must be followed to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.

Not a carbon monoxide alarm.

Much of the controversy in the Griffin v Schneider trial was whether or not the detector shown in this picture was a carbon monoxide alarm. In fact, it was a 1997 smoke detector.

Pamalla Schneider was literally playing with fire, taking dangerous risks with fire, not fire in a forest, but fire in the home she rented to the Griffin family. No one was burned, but Rick and Kayla Griffin were poisoned. No one died, but it was close. Only the dog Hannah, whose nose is more sensitive to noxious fumes, saved Rick and Kayla’s life.  Because warning signs and devices were ignored, Rick and Kayla brains and organs were damaged by this deadly poison. Without rescue, the human body will succumb to the fumes. Only the dachshund saved their lives.

Missing Carbon Monoxide Alarm on November 20, 2015.

It’s 7 a.m. when Rick gets home from working 3rd shift. Kayla’s off at school. Tina is off at work. Rick has a couple of beers to relax, to help him fall asleep. It’s cold and he goes down into the basement to turn on the boiler for the first time this fall. It’s not heating up, so he keeps adjusting the thermostat until he goes to sleep.

Kayla gets home from school and goes in her room to do homework. She’s not feeling well so she lays down and falls asleep.

Rick’s sleeping until around 6:30 p.m. when he’s awakened by the dog Hannah, barking and then throwing up. Rick gets up and realizes he’s dizzy and can barely walk. His chest is heaving, he is having chest pains. He thinks he’s having a heart attack. He stumbles into the living room opens the window because it’s so hot, it feels like it is 100 degrees in the house. He manages to make it to a chair.  He yells for Kayla, but she doesn’t respond.

He can’t walk to her room for fear of falling. He’s confused. He’s afraid he could be dying. He calls 911 for help but the help doesn’t seem like it is ever going to arrive, and he calls them again. His speech is so slurred that the 911 operator asks him if he has been drinking. He had two beers, 9 hours before.

When the first EMT enters the house at 6:50 p.m., the personal carbon monoxide alarm he is wearing is immediately going off, even though Rick had opened the windows. The EMT’s begin to evacuate the house. When they go into Kayla’s room, she is unconscious and having seizures. Her Glasgow Coma Scale at this moment is a three, on a 15 scale. Most people with concussions have a 15 GCS score. Three is a low as you can go on a Glasgow Coma Scale. A three GSC score means that if they stuck her with a pin, her reflexes would not even respond. The EMT’s transport Rick and Kayla to the local hospital.

When they get to the hospital in Stevens Point, they quickly determine that they have severe carbon monoxide poisoning. The blood test shows that their levels were approaching fatal levels. The Stevens Point ER doctors decide to rush them by Med Vac to St. Elizabeth Hospital in Appleton, Wisconsin, where they are put in a Hyperbaric Oxygen therapy chamber to try to stabilize their blood oxygen levels.

A day later when they are discharged from Theda Clark, they are so ill on the way back home that they went back to the hospital where they received repeated Hyperbaric Oxygen therapy.

Tina, who is a CNA, is at work at a nursing home when she gets the call from the Portage County Sherriff’s office call of what has happened, shortly after 7 p.m. in the evening.

Landlord’s No. 1 Job is to Keep a property safe

Schneider not only didn’t have a carbon monoxide alarm on the property, she hadn’t had her boiler or its pipes professionally maintained in at least five years. The result, a corroded and rusted out pipe allowed for the carbon monoxide leak.

Let me tell you a version of this story which could have had happy ending. Pamalla Schneider, Rick and Kayla’s landlord has annual inspections on the boiler in the house and in the summer of 2014, before she ever rented the house to the Griffins, they discover that the boiler and its pipes are defective. They also discover that the chimney is totally blocked by debris. The boiler is replaced with a new boiler in 2014 and no one gets poisoned.

Let me tell you of another story that would have not as happy an ending but would have not resulted in repeated Hyperbaric Treatments. In 2013 when Pamalla Schneider bought CO detectors for her home and her other rental properties, she bought two for the Griffin house and put them up in the home. While the boiler would still have malfunctioned when turned on for the first time of the season on November 20, 2015, Rick and Kayla would have been alerted to the danger before the dog threw up. They could have safely evacuated before permanent brain and organ damage occurred to them both.

The evidence will showed that if Ms. Schneider had annual inspections by HVAC technicians, this poisoning would not have happened. If Ms. Schneider had provided working CO alarms, carbon monoxide would have been discovered before it was too late to prevent permanent brain damage.

Unfortunately, the trial wasn’t about that happy story, it was about severe carbon monoxide poisoning and brain damage. Leading up to 11/20/2015 Ms. Schneider had a choice as to whether provide a safe property to her tenants and she chose not to.

Jury Finds Pamalla Schneider 100% at Fault

Let’s talk about what Pamalla Schneider did wrong.

It it is important to understand that the house Ms. Schneider rented to the Griffins had a boiler, not a furnace. Boilers are inherently more dangerous as they require water be to be ULTRA heated and come with risks of explosions. Many of us feel qualified to do the minimal maintenance of replacing the furnace filters in your home. No one should service a boiler unless they have the proper training.


Every boiler manual calls for annual maintenance.  HVAC firms understand that annual service is required on a boiler. Ms. Schneider testified under oath that she knew that annual maintenance was required for a boiler.

  1. Based upon your understanding of the obligations of a landlord back in, say, 2015, do you have an understanding as to how often a landlord – a residential landlord should have their fuel-burning appliances inspected by professionals?
  2. Yes.
  3. How often
  4. Annually, approximately.

Despite her testimony, Ms. Schneider expressed beliefs, she did not have the boiler serviced annually.  Specifically, Ms. Schneider gave these sworn answers to interrogatories on December 3, 2018:

  • I purchased the subject rental property in September or October of 1989.
  • At the time I purchased it and up until the time of the subject incident, the home had hydronic heat and utilized a boiler.
  • I believe I had checkups done on the equipment, during the time I owned it, but I do not recall when those were done or who did them. I believe the last time I had the equipment checked before the subject incident was approximately five years before the incident, when the hot water heater was replaced.
  • There was no service done for any malfunctions as there were none to my knowledge. As is indicated previously herein, I probably had checkups done on the boiler, but I do not recall who performed them or when they were performed, but I believe it may have last been done approximately five years before the subject incident when the new hot water heater was installed.

At her deposition, Ms. Schneider added this additional testimony:

  1. Okay. All right. Then in the answer to interrogatories, you thought that either Rasmussen Heating or Point Heating had been on the property before 2015?
  2. Correct.
  3. So we subpoenaed records from both of them, and they couldn’t produce anything. Are you sure it wasn’t a third company?
  4. Oh, geez. They are the ones that I usually used, but it’s so long ago; and if — which I really never had problems with anything.

Ms. Schneider admitted that she should have gone in and at least checked the boiler and provided the Griffin’s with new batteries for the detectors in the home, on the one-year anniversary of their moving into the house. That would have been in the summer of 2015. The furnace had not been turned on from the summer of 2015 until it was turned on by Rick on the day of the poisoning.

So what? So, what if there weren’t any problems with the boiler, what does it matter that she hadn’t had it professionally serviced? The answer is that no professional HVAC company could have serviced that boiler in the year before the poisoning and not seen the condition of the pipes shown in these pictures. If any professional had seen these pipes in the summer of 2015, they would have red-tagged this boiler, the same as the Power company did the day of the poisoning. Expert testimony at the trial conclusively established that the corrosion on those pipes doesn’t happen in one heating season.

Even more clearly, if an HVAC company had done a combustion test on the one-year anniversary of the Griffin family moving into the house (the summer of 2015), they undoubtedly would have discovered that the chimney was blocked. Doing a combustion test is the standard of care for an HVAC company on an annual maintenance test.

What did Schneider do wrong?

  • Pamalla Schneider didn’t install the required carbon monoxide alarm.
  • Pamalla Schneider didn’t have the boiler (not a furnace remember) serviced annually, as required by the manufacturer.
  • Pamalla Schneider didn’t call an HVAC contractor when she saw rusted and corroded pipes.

The Absence of a Carbon Monoxide Detector

Wisconsin law requires all homeowners to have a properly functioning carbon monoxide detector in the room where the boiler is and, on the floor where anyone sleeps. That means there should have been two in the Griffin home, in the basement and on the first floor, between the bedrooms.

The evidence will be clear that home that Schneider rented to the Griffins had none. Pamalla Schneider testified that she had a detector there, but the only type of detector she swore was in the home is this picture. The detector in the photo below is a detector made in the last century and it is a smoke detector, not a carbon monoxide detector or a combination carbon monoxide/smoke detector.

The jury heard from Matthew Zander from the Stevens Point Fire Department that when they entered the premises there were no alarms going off, but they had a portable carbon monoxide detector that registered 500 ppm on the main floor. The readings in Kayla’s bedroom were still 406 ppm.

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