In a pair of recent Georgia personal injury decisions, the issue was not a slip and fall, but rather carbon monoxide poisoning. The plaintiffs claimed the defendants had negligently inspected work performed on their water heater’s gas exhaust ventilation system, and due to this negligence, their kids had been exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide. A building inspection department employed the defendants.
One was an assistant building official, while the other was a building inspector. Based on the assistant building official’s affidavit, the city’s ordinances and codes required all home renovation projects to be pre-authorized by the Department’s permit. After they were completed, the permitted renovations were intended to pass a building inspection.
In 2009, the plaintiffs contracted with a builder to renovate the plumbing, mechanical, electrical, and structural aspects of their home. The builder asked for a permit, which stated its intention was to remodel the plaintiffs’ home. The application didn’t list the specific work that would be done. The builder hired a subcontractor to do the plumbing, and a separate plumbing permit was obtained. The plumber installed an exhaust vent for the water heater, among other things. The exhaust vent ran from the water heater to an opening that was a few feet below a second-floor children’s bedroom window. A final inspection was conducted at the beginning of 2010. Some parts of the renovation failed the inspection, but the water heater and exhaust vent passed. The next day, there was a second final inspection of work that didn’t pass. Neither defendant inspected the water heater or exhaust vent because the Department didn’t issue a permit that allowed work on these aspects of the house. The plaintiff, the builder, and the subcontractor didn’t ask for an inspection either. In 2013, someone from the gas company told the plaintiffs the exhaust vent had been improperly installed and needed to be moved. The plaintiffs asked for a medical opinion about whether their kids might have been exposed to a harmful degree of carbon monoxide because the exhaust vent was improperly placed.
The plaintiffs sued the renovation companies for negligence and also sued the inspectors. They claimed the inspectors had breached the duty to appropriately inspect the exhaust vent. The defendants moved for summary judgment. They argued that the plaintiffs hadn’t shown they had a duty to perform a ministerial act, such as inspecting the exhaust vent. They argued that the negligence claims were prohibited under the doctrine of official immunity. The defendants also argued that the statute of limitations barred their claims and that they weren’t able to prove an essential element. The trial court granted the motions and ruled that the property damage claims were barred by the statute of limitations. Summary judgment was denied on the rest of the lawsuit. The defendants applied for review. The appellate court explained that to win a summary judgment motion under OCGA § 9-11-56, the party moving for summary judgment needs to show there’s no genuine issue of material fact, and the undisputed facts warrant judgment as a matter of law. In this case, the defendants would be entitled to summary judgment if they could prove there wasn’t enough evidence to prove negligence. The appellate court explained that to show negligence, a plaintiff needed to establish: (1) a legal duty, (2) a deviation from this duty, (3) causation, and (4) injury.
The very first issue was whether the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care. If there isn’t a legally recognized duty of care, there isn’t fault. Here, the evidence showed that the home inspections had to be done in accordance with the Department’s procedures. However, the Department was only authorized or required to inspect projects for which a permit had been issued. The affidavit explained that if no permit was issued, the Department couldn’t be aware of which particular aspects required inspection. In this case, had the permits covered work on the water heater ventilator, the defendants would have had a ministerial duty to inspect the ventilation. However, if the permits didn’t authorize gas exhaust vent work, there was no such duty to inspect. The plaintiffs didn’t meet the burden of showing a duty to inspect. The judgment was reversed.
Atlanta personal injury attorney Christopher Simon has many years of experience with a wide variety of negligence actions, and he is ready to help you assess and bring a potential claim. If you’ve recently been injured on another party’s property and believe it may be a result of negligence, feel free to contact us and arrange a complimentary case evaluation.