Update: This story now includes the information on the dismissal of cases against two defendants who were charged with criminal negligence in the carbon monoxide deaths.
On November 2, a federal judge dismissed a negligence claim against Colorado’s Pitkin County that had been filed by relatives of a family of four who died from carbon monoxide poisoning in late November 2008. A day later, a Pitkin County District judge, citing an expired statute of limitations, dismissed cases against two contractors who had been indicted on charges of criminally negligent homicide in the poisoning deaths.
The case dismissals put an unexpected, startling end to some of the legal action tied to the incident, although relatives of the deceased family vowed to pursue other legal remedies.
The source of the gas was a leak in a Munchkin boiler, which in 2005 had been installed in an Aspen-area home as part of its snowmelt system. The family members, who lived in Denver, had won a stay at the home through a school-sponsored auction, and timed their stay to coincide with the Thanksgiving holiday.
The building had been inspected by Brian Pawl and Erik Peltonen, who were named in the negligence suit against the county along with its community development department and board of commissioners. In 2006, the county issued a certificate of occupancy for the home, which was not equipped with a carbon monoxide detector at the time the family occupied the house.
Despite the judge’s dismissal of the claim against the county, however, the now-retired Peltonen, along with the subcontractor who installed the boiler, Marlin Brown, had still faced separate jury trials in the coming weeks, each on four counts of criminally negligent homicide pegged to the deaths of Caroline Lofgren, 42, her husband, Parker, 39, and their two children, Owen, 10, and Sophie, 8.
Relatives of the family expressed disappointment at the dismissals.
“These dismissals do not indicate innocence. Four people died,” Massachusetts resident Hildy Feuerbach, the sister of the deceased mother, told the Aspen Times. Feuerbach had flown into Aspen to attend the proceedings and said later that she and other relatives will continue to press on to find out who was responsible for the deaths..
Brown’s trial had been scheduled to begin on November 28 and Peltonen’s was scheduled for December.
Civil claims, dismissal motions
Although the county, Peltonen, and Pawl were dismissed from the one civil negligence claim in federal court, there still are seven other negligence claims in that same lawsuit that must be addressed in the state court. The defendants named in those seven claims include Brown, a construction management firm, an HVAC specialist, the development group that owned the house at the time, and Massachusetts-based Heat Transfer Products, which manufactured Munchkin boilers until January 2011, when the line was discontinued.
In August, attorneys for Peltonen and for Brown had filed motions to dismiss the criminal charges on the grounds that the three-year statute of limitations on the charges had expired, the Aspen Times story noted. And a friend-of-the-court brief by Pitkin County, the city of Aspen, the International Code Council, and the Colorado Municipal League argued that because the county’s implementation of a building code is voluntary, its adoption by the county shielded Peltonen and Brown from criminal liability.
In addition, as the Aspen Times pointed out in a story published on September 30, Peltonen’s attorney had argued that a Pitkin County ordinance in 2004 that included adoption of the 2003 International Building Code, the 2003 International Mechanical Code, and the 2003 International Residential Code also protects county inspectors from civil liability – which, the attorney argued, would also shield them from criminal prosecution.