Crime & Courts

Parents of 11-year-old Jeffrey Williams: Best Western knew of carbon monoxide dangers

Jeannie Williams talks about the need for carbon monoxide alarms

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As heartbreaking as it is to relive the details of their son’s death at a Boone hotel two years ago, the parents of 11-year-old Jeffrey Williams of Rock Hill filed three legal complaints Friday over his carbon monoxide poisoning.

The allegations of wrongdoing are extensive – ranging from unlicensed work by Best Western’s maintenance staff, to incompetence by Town of Boone inspectors and investigators, to failures by the medical examiner.

The complaints – one lawsuit filed in Superior Court and two with the N.C. Industrial Commission – demand unspecified monetary damages. But the greatest hope of Jeff and Jeannie Williams is that the legal scrutiny will spur an industry-wide movement to require carbon monoxide alarms in all hotel rooms.

It’s their way of keeping Jeffrey’s memory alive.

“One of the fears of a mom, or a parent, who has lost a child, is that people will forget,” said Jeannie Williams.

In a written statement Friday, she and her husband, Jeff, added: “Today’s actions in no way bring any healing to our family; instead, we intend to hold all parties involved in Jeffrey’s death accountable for their actions or lack thereof. Our true goal is to effect profound and dramatic change in the way business is conducted. As a family our pain is great. Your continued support and prayers for our family as we go through this process is greatly appreciated.”

It was about 9:30 p.m. on June 7, 2013, when Jeannie and Jeffrey Williams settled in for the evening at the Best Western Blue Ridge Plaza in Boone. Jeannie Williams told Jeffrey he could play an electronic game for a few minutes while she went to the bathroom to get ready for bed.

“She immediately began feeling sick and nauseous,” the lawsuit says. “.... Jeannie Williams’ last thought before losing consciousness was that she had to get to her cell phone, which was not in the bathroom, to call for help because she did not want her son to be by himself if she was incapacitated.”

Jeffrey died that night; Jeannie Williams suffered serious injuries.

Investigators discovered that carbon monoxide was escaping from the swimming pool water heating system on the floor below and seeping up into their room.

At no time, the lawsuit says, did hotel staff inform Jeannie Williams that two guests had died in the same room two months earlier. “Hotel staff made a conscious decision to place Jeannie and Jeffrey Williams into room 225,” the lawsuit states.

That late-night decision, following years of faulty maintenance and repairs, proved deadly.

The defendants

The two claims filed with the N.C. Industrial Commission name former Watauga County medical examiner Brent Hall, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees medical examiners.

Under the doctrine of sovereign immunity, state government and its employees are protected from being sued without their consent; claims against the government must be brought before the commission.

The complaints accuse the medical examiner and the state of failing to properly investigate the deaths of Daryl and Shirley Jenkins on April 16, 2013. A week before Jeffrey died, the state toxicology lab completed tests that showed Shirley Jenkins died of carbon monoxide poisoning. But the results were not made public.

The lawsuit, filed on Jeffrey’s behalf in Mecklenburg Superior Court, is similar to a lawsuit filed in February by the Jenkins family. As the Jenkinses did, the Williams family sued Best Western International, the hotel’s owners and its former manager, Damon Mallatere. Other defendants include a gas company, one of its contract employees and a heating technician, all of whom worked on the swimming pool heating system.

Mallatere, who faces three counts of manslaughter in the deaths, referred questions to his attorney, who had not yet seen the lawsuit. A Best Western spokesman could not be reached.

The Williams’ lawsuit names several additional defendants: the Town of Boone and its police, fire and planning and inspections departments, and Patrick Nolan of Indian Trail and his former company, Expert Air.

The lawsuit faults Nolan for shoddy repairs on the hotel’s swimming pool water heating system. It accuses the town of not properly inspecting the heating system and not adequately investigating the deaths of Daryl and Shirley Jenkins.

Town manager John Ward declined to comment on the allegations. But he said town officials “do express our sympathy” over what happened.

The claims

The three complaints were filed by Columbia attorney Chad Poteat and the Charlotte law firm of Smith Moore Leatherwood. A fourth lawsuit is expected, stemming from injuries Jeannie Williams sustained, but under state law the family has three years to bring that claim for negligence.

There’s a 2-year statute of limitations for a wrongful death lawsuit. Jeffrey died two years ago Monday.

The lawsuit on his behalf incorporates details about the swimming pool heating system reported in a 2013 Observer investigation.

Among the many claims are that:

▪ Maintenance workers replaced the original swimming pool water heater with a used heater without being licensed to do the work and without obtaining a permit or inspection. The maintenance workers also bypassed a pressure-sensing safety switch, the lawsuit says, rather than repair or replace the power venter after it failed.

▪ A gas company was hired to convert the replacement heater from propane to natural gas despite the fact that the manufacturer said the heater should not be converted.

▪ The Town of Boone granted a permit for the conversion and, according to the lawsuit, town employees were present “during part or all of the conversion process.”

▪ After Daryl and Shirley Jenkins died in April 2013, the town of Boone was warned that carbon monoxide from the pool heater was the likely explanation for the deaths, the lawsuit says. But the suit says the town failed to investigate.

It wasn’t until two months later, after Jeffrey died, that authorities discovered carbon monoxide escaping from corroded pipes in the pool heating system, through holes in a protective fire wall and into room 225 above.

Because of the three deaths, North Carolina passed a law in 2013 requiring carbon monoxide alarms in certain places in hotels with fossil-fuel-burning appliances. The law does not require alarms in all guest rooms. But the board of Best Western International voted to require carbon monoxide alarms in all its guest rooms.

The hotel in Boone has new owners and is now a Quality Inn & Suites. Before the sale, however, the previous owners made one significant change:

According to a front desk clerk, every room now has a carbon monoxide alarm.

Leland: 704-358-5074

The Jeffrey Lee Williams Foundation

Jeffrey’s parents formed a foundation to honor Jeffrey, with the goal of preventing carbon monoxide deaths in hotels, dormitories, homes and businesses. Earlier this month, Firehouse Subs donated $50,000 toward the purchase of carbon monoxide alarms for houses in the Columbia area and carbon monoxide air monitors for fire departments.

The new Hampton Inn & Suites in Fort Mill installed carbon monoxide alarms in its 102 guest rooms and downstairs meeting rooms. “It was a wake-up to call,” S.C. Rep. Ralph Norman, R-Rock Hill, said about Jeffrey’s death. Norman, co-owner of the hotel, credited Jeannie Williams for taking “the next step to turn a tragedy into a real life saver for a lot of people.”

Why weren’t lawsuits filed in Watauga?

Fred DeVore, an experienced personal injury attorney in Charlotte, said geography may be the key to why the lawsuits were not filed in Boone.

Watauga is much smaller than Mecklenburg (52,000 residents in Watauga, compared to over 1 million Mecklenburg). “Lawyers have the impression that the more metropolitan an area, the more likely you are to have a larger verdict,” DeVore said.

Also this: Because there are so many defendants, it might be difficult to find jurors in Watauga who do not know any of the defendants, DeVore said.

The rules of civil procedure say that cases can be filed where any of the parties reside or where the event occurred. The administrators of the estates of both Jeffrey Williams and Daryl and Shirley Jenkins are from Charlotte.

Attorneys for the Williams and Jenkins families have declined to comment on their choice of venue. Defendants have already filed motions in the Jenkins case asking that venue be changed to Watauga.

Elizabeth Leland

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