4th Circuit: Carbon Monoxide Poisoning a Civil Rights Violation

After the 4th Circuit found carbon monoxide poisoning could be a Civil Rights Violation, wrongful death case settled for $2 million.

By Attorney Gordon S. Johnson, Jr.

Allen Benedict Court Settlement for Civil Rights Abuse

In a tragedy we have covered several times on this blog, a $2 million settlement has been approved in Federal Court with respect to a carbon monoxide fatality at the Allen Benedict Court apartments in 2019. The settlement came after the 4th Federal Circuit found that carbon monoxide poisoning could be a civil rights violation.

Federal District Court approves $2 million settlement for Civil Rights Violation resulting in carbon monoxide death.

For Part One of the Allen Benedict Story, click here.

For Part Two of the Allen Benedict Story, click here.

In January 2019, two men were found deceased in their apartments at Allen Benedict Court in Columbia, South Carolina. The deaths occurred 6 months after the death of James Chapman in the same housing project. All three men perished from carbon monoxide poisoning.

While remedies against a public housing project were limited under South Carolina law, the heirs of one of the January 2019 victims brought a claim under the Federal Civil Rights statutes.

In the Federal District Court, the claim was dismissed. The plaintiff, the estate of Calvin Witherspoon, Jr., filed an appeal claiming that the rampant neglect at the Allen Benedict Court was so egregious that it amounted to a violation of the tenants’ civil rights. In reversing the lower court, the 4thCircuit said:

To prove a violation of substantive-due-process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, a plaintiff must show that a defendant’s behavior was “so egregious, so outrageous, that it may fairly be said to shock the contemporary conscience. To be conscience shocking, a defendant’s behavior must lack “any reasonable justification in the service of a legitimate governmental objective.” County of Sacramento v. Lewis , 523 U.S. 833, 846, 118 S.Ct. 1708, 140 L.Ed.2d 1043 (1998).

In explaining the line between ordinary negligence and a carbon monoxide poisoning that raises itself to a civil rights violation, the Court stated:

On one end of the spectrum is “conduct intended to injure [that is] in some way unjustifiable by any government interest.” Lewis , 523 U.S. at 849, 118 S.Ct. 1708. Such conduct most likely rises to the conscience-shocking level. Id. On the other  end is “negligently inflicted harm [which] is categorically beneath the threshold of constitutional due process” conduct.

But conduct falling in between those two poles—deliberate-indifference conduct which is more than negligence but less than intentional harm—presents a closer call.

While the parties agreed that deliberate indifference was what it took to make neglect a civil rights violation, there was a battle as to how that applied to these carbon monoxide deaths.

Ignoring Requests to Repair.

The Court continued:

Unlike cases involving emergency, split-second decisions, Plaintiff alleges years of choices by the Housing Authority that led to the tragic circumstances of this case. For example, throughout Witherspoon’s tenancy at Allen Benedict Court, where he lived from 2012 until his death in 2019, the Housing Authority received requests from tenants to repair conditions at the apartments—and we might infer a steady stream of serious requests, too, based on the amount of code violations discovered after Witherspoon’s death. Yet the Housing Authority chose not to respond to these complaints, or at most took only half-measures to resolve them.

The 4th Circuit found it significant that the Housing Authority Required carbon monoxide detectors in other housing it controlled.

Additionally, the Housing Authority adopted a specific policy in 2017 to ensure that missing carbon monoxide detectors, which it considered to be “life-threatening conditions,” were installed in some (privately owned) properties. J.A. 29. But two years later—and with time to reflect that such “life-threatening conditions” from  carbon monoxide threatened all of its properties—the Housing Authority had chosen not to apply the same policy to its own housing. Thus, the facts alleged show there was ample time to deliberate and reflect on those choices.

In virtually every carbon monoxide lawsuit, the defendant will argue they had no actual knowledge of the risk of poisoning, That didn’t sway the 4th Circuit.

Specifically, the Housing Authority posits that without prior knowledge of past complaints relating to carbon monoxide leaks or other similar dangerous conditions, it could not have known the danger here.

To start, we note the unique nature of the risk in this case. Carbon monoxide is dangerous because it is colorless, odorless and tasteless, hence why it is often called the silent killer.  Its initial symptoms “appear like the flu,” and include unremarkable symptoms like headache and fatigue.  Ultimately, carbon monoxide can be lethal.  These allegations inevitably raise the question of whether the risk of not installing carbon monoxide detectors is so obvious that we could infer the Housing Authority’s subjective knowledge in this case. (Editor’s note: Can there ever really be any doubt about this. Whether it is a subjective knowledge, it should be considered constructive knowledge.)

But no such inference is required here because Plaintiff has plausibly alleged that, by enacting Policy 8-1.C, the Housing Authority expressly acknowledged that a missing or inoperable carbon monoxide detector or a gas heating system with improper chimney venting constitute life-threatening conditions. That allegation shows that the Housing Authority subjectively understood that these risks applied not only to the residents of privately owned apartments covered by the policy, but also to the tenants of apartments like Allen Benedict Court.

Failure to Install CO Detectors Could be One Free Death Policy

The 4th Circuit rejected the Housing Authorities purported ignorance.

Taken to its logical conclusion, the Housing Authority’s argument would amount to a “one free death” card.  That’s because, where a landlord fails to install carbon monoxide detectors or inspect a furnace, the most likely  way they will discover any dangerous emissions will be a person’s very serious illness or death. … We reject such a theory here, where the Housing Authority’s conduct virtually ensured it would have no knowledge of dangerous emissions from its furnaces until it was too late.

Background of Allen Benedict Case

The complaint alleged that mismanagement, absence of oversight, gross neglect of matters of routine maintenance and a deliberate indifference to the conditions of the property and the safety of the people who lived there led to the dangerous conditions which existed at the time of Witherspoon’s death.

In 1990, the Housing Authority installed gas burning furnaces in the apartment units. It is known that the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning is a risk anywhere there is a fuel-burning heat source. Without carbon monoxide detection in place and adequate education, residents, especially those with special needs, could potentially be at risk. .. Because of the lack of grant funds, it was decided that the building would be demolished in 2015. However, that did not occur. What did occur was a further disincentive to delegate funds for maintenance and improvements to the property.

In 2017, Columbia Housing Authority adopted a policy defining a missing or inoperable carbon monoxide detector as a life-threatening condition, with a 24-hour window for owners to comply.

Because Columbia Housing Authority failed to provide maintenance and repair for the furnaces, failed to install carbon monoxide detectors and failed to educate residents on carbon monoxide dangers and symptoms, it is alleged that Witherspoon became an involuntary and unknowing victim of fatal carbon monoxide poisoning. Witherspoon died as a result of a faulty furnace which caused the buildup of carbon monoxide in his apartment.

Age of the Furnaces Can Cause Constructive Notice of CO Hazard

It was determined that the 30-year-old furnace involved had a build-up of debris which cause an essential vent to quit working. Investigators determined that no preventative maintenance had been performed. Existing reports were inadequate and incomplete. And there was one inspector serving 2600 housing units. The inspection following Witherspoon’s death revealed 869 code violations, including lack of carbon monoxide detectors or working smoke detectors.

The Columbia Fire Department found severe and lethal levels of carbon monoxide in several units as well as issues involving leaking gas. All residents were permanently evacuated and relocated permanently, and the Allen Benedict Court Apartments were ultimately demolished. The Housing Authority was fined $11,000 by the City of Columbia after pleading guilty to 24 of 26 code violations.


On October 16, 2023, a settlement was presented to the court. The amount of the settlement was $2,000,000: $400,000 of this amount to be paid from the Insurance Reserve Fund/State Fiscal Responsibility Authority and $1,600,000 on behalf of the Columbia Housing Authority.

Editors Note about Significance of Civil Rights Violation:

Why is this finding that carbon monoxide negligence can amount to a Federal Civil Rights Violation significant? It is important because governmental entities are often protected under state law from lawsuits, under what is called sovereign immunity. Sovereign immunity does not protect state and local governments from Federal causes of action, particularly for violating the civil rights guaranteed under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.

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