The family of an 11-year old Rock Hill boy who died from carbon monoxide poisoning at a Best Western hotel in Boone in 2013 has agreed to settle wrongful death and injury suits against the hotel chain and other parties for $12 million, attorneys for the family said in a news release Monday.
In June 2013, Jeffrey Williams and his mother, Jeannie Williams, stopped for a night in the mountain town 100 miles northwest of Charlotte. Jeffrey died from carbon monoxide leaking from a swimming pool heating system, while Jeannie suffered serious injuries.
Six weeks earlier, Daryl and Shirley Jenkins of Washington State had died in the same room, but officials did not immediately identify carbon monoxide as the cause of death.
Both families filed wrongful death lawsuits, seeking damages from Best Western International; the hotel’s owners and its former manager, Damon Mallatere; as well as from companies and individuals who worked on the swimming pool heating system where the deadly gas originated.
Jeannie Williams said Monday that the family hopes to use some of the settlement money to help raise awareness about the threats posed by carbon monoxide.
“I miss Jeffrey ever day,” she said. “We hope this lawsuit will continue to shine light on the need for carbon monoxide detectors in every hotel room where there is a source.”
Said Robert Marcus, an attorney with the Smith Moore Leatherwood law firm, which represented the Williams family: “We are pleased to see this process come to an end. While nothing can bring Jeffrey back, this ending provides at least some closure for the family.”
A Best Western spokeswoman said the chain “denies liability for this matter, but its heartfelt thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of those affected.” Nathan Miller, an attorney representing Mallatere, said his client has accepted civil liability in the matter “from day one,” adding Mallatere “hopes the families can find their path forward.”
After the death of their son, the Williams family founded the Jeffrey Lee Williams Foundation, a nonprofit with the mission of preventing carbon monoxide poisoning.
With the settlement, the family “can continue speaking out and working to make sure this does not happen to another family,” Marcus said. “No other parents should have to suffer as (they) have.”
More information can be found at www.jeffreysfoundation.org.
The suits filed on behalf of Jeannie and Jeffrey’s estate were initially filed in Mecklenburg County but later moved to Watauga. The other lawyers representing the Williams family were Bailey King Jr. and Jack Riordan of Smith Moore Leatherwood, as well as Chad Poteat of the Poteat Law Firm in Columbia, S.C.
The settlement agreement with the Williams family follows an earlier undisclosed agreement with the Jenkins family.
Attorney Charles Monnett III, who represented the estate of Daryl and Shirley Jenkins, confirmed the case had been settled for a “substantial” amount several months ago.
“It is shocking that a name-brand hotel could be in that kind of condition,” Monnett said. “These name-brand hotels want to come in and tell you what kind of signs you can have or what color carpet or all these details about the physical appearance but yet want to do nothing to ensure that these facilities are safe.”
Series of errors
Daryl and Shirley Jenkins had traveled to Boone in April 2013 to visit cousins. They died on their second night in Room 225 at the Best Western.
Less than six weeks later, Jeffrey died in the same room, and Jeannie Williams was seriously injured after lying unconscious on the bathroom floor for more than 14 hours. They had been on their way to pick up Jeffrey’s sister from camp.
It was only after Jeffrey was found dead in the bed that authorities discovered a carbon monoxide leak in the swimming pool water-heating system on the floor below.
An Observer investigation uncovered a series of errors and decisions by many different people, including hotel management, town employees and the local medical examiner. Testimony before a state regulatory board indicated Damon Mallatere, the manager of the Best Western hotel, was the only one who took action that might have prevented the second set of poisonings.
In a separate criminal case, manslaughter charges were dismissed in 2016 against Mallatere. In exchange, his former company accepted blame, pleading guilty to three counts of manslaughter.
This month, Mallatere filed a lawsuit in federal court in the West District of North Carolina that accused the Town of Boone of malicious prosecution and other offenses. The complaint says he has not been able to find gainful employment in his field after the public accusations he faced. Town manager John Ward said the town does not comment on pending litigation.
In 2014, the N.C. General Assembly adopted a law aimed at preventing such tragedies. That law requires hotels and other lodging establishments to install carbon monoxide alarms near fossil fuel burning heaters, appliances and fireplaces.
That same year, Best Western ordered its hotels to install carbon monoxide alarms in all guest rooms.
At the hotel in Boone, meanwhile, the natural-gas-burning pool heater was replaced with an electric heater that doesn’t emit carbon monoxide.
The Observer’s investigation found no indication that officials in Boone or anyone in the state’s medical examiner system acted with urgency to understand what happened following the Jenkins’ death. A subsequent Observer investigation found that state medical examiners routinely skipped basic steps when investigating suspicious deaths – a problem that can cause widows to be cheated out of insurance money and allow killers to go free.
State lawmakers responded by doubling pay for the state’s medical examiners and, for the first time, setting aside money for mandatory training.