Ohio Landlord’s Good Deed Turns Deadly

Ohio landlord Steven Snow had known the family for 20 years. Tammy McDaniel and her three kids needed a place to stay after Tammy’s break-up with her boyfriend; Steven had a vacant rental home that he was fixing up. Steven says that Tammy was at the house waiting for the electricity to be turned on; he lent her a generator to warm the place temporarily. But she stayed the night with her kids, and in the morning, Steven found all of them dead of carbon monoxide poisoning. The house did not have a carbon monoxide detector; Steven has been charged with four counts of reckless homicide.

Reckless homicide is the killing of another person by acting, according to Black’s Law Dictionary, “with conscious indifference toward that person’s life.” On either side of reckless homicide sit murder (which requires an intent to kill), and negligent homicide (death caused by careless acts, otherwise known as an accident and not a criminal offense).

Contacted to comment on the situation, a spokesman for the National Apartment Association, a lobbying group that represents about 50,000 apartment companies, referred to the increasing number of states and cities that require carbon monoxide detectors in multifamily rentals (Ohio is not among them). Landlords are concerned, the spokesman claimed, that they might be held liable for injuries or deaths that result from CO poisoning if a tenant had removed batteries or failed to notify a landlord of a malfunctioning device.

It’s unfortunate that the National Apartment Association used this tragedy to air their constituents’ worries about installing detectors in general, rather than focusing on what appears to have happened here. CO poisoning results from the unvented burning of fossil fuels, including gasoline. Running a generator inside a house is really no different than running a car in a closed garage. It’s hard to imagine how this escaped the landlord’s attention; even his intention to use the generator temporarily exposed the family to deadly fumes.

The spokesman’s stated fears–that tenants who remove batteries or fail to report broken monitors will still be able to hold landlords liable–are not relevant here. Death involving a disabled or malfunctioning device is not what happened at Steven Snow’s house. Mr. Snow is charged with recklessly placing a CO source in an unvented place, where he knew people would be.

Landlords can’t prevent tenants from foolishly removing batteries, or from failing to ask for repairs or replacements; nor can they inspect rental premises constantly. For these reasons, when landlords follow the law and install monitors as required, they will usually escape liability if the tenant disables the unit or carelessly fails to report a problem.

Requiring CO monitors in Ohio and other states that do not yet do so is a common sense move, akin to the widespread mandate for smoke detectors. We know these devices save lives; we also know that tenants who install them on their own risk deductions from their security deposits for “damage” to the walls or ceilings. Having to pay for installing a widely acknowledged safety device is not something we should expect of tenants. Landlords who fear that tenant sloppiness or meddling will make them liable for subsequent injuries or deaths need to be reassured by their lobbying group that this is not likely to happen.