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Can I Sue an HVAC Company?

A home high efficiency furnace with a residential gas water heater & humidifier.

Exposure to indoor air pollution caused by faulty heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems can cause immediate issues or long-term illnesses in humans. It can even cause property damage.

If an indoor air quality problem can be traced back to the improper installation or negligent maintenance of an HVAC system, then yes, a business or an injured party can sue an HVAC company.

This article discusses the legal claims people might bring against an HVAC company, illnesses that can occur from HVAC issues, and the different types of lawsuits you could bring if you or a loved one were injured. Although this article focuses primarily on commercial buildings, negligent installation and improper maintenance of an HVAC system can occur at someone's home or rental property as well.

Common Reasons to Sue an HVAC Company

To bring a lawsuit against an HVAC company, you will usually need to show that the HVAC company did something they shouldn't have done (or didn't do something they should have done) and it caused you specific harm, like an injury or financial harm.

Reasons people sue HVAC companies include:

  • Improper placement of air intake vents (which can introduce pollutants into the indoor environment)
  • An imbalance in air pressure caused by excessive venting in one location (which may draw pollutants such as carbon monoxide back into a building in another location)
  • Negligent HVAC inspection and maintenance (which can result from negligent hiring, training, and supervision of HVAC employees)

Examples of important problems that may be discovered during an HVAC inspection include:

  • Clogged condensate and drain lines
  • Mold, mildew, and bacteria, which can spread through ductwork
  • Harmful refrigerant leaks
  • Carbon monoxide, which can result from improperly operating or vented furnaces or water heaters

Legal Claims Resulting From Indoor Air Pollution

Not all indoor air pollution injuries are caused by HVAC companies. You should discuss your case with an experienced personal injury attorney to learn what type of lawsuit to bring. Lawsuits that arise from indoor air pollution can take many forms, including:

Injuries Associated With Indoor Air Pollution

Personal injuries arising from indoor air pollution can fall into three general categories:

  1. Sick building syndrome
  2. Building-related illness
  3. Multiple chemical sensitivity

You can learn details about each type of injury or illness in the paragraphs below.

Sick Building Syndrome: The Basics

Sick building syndrome (SBS) is diagnosed when multiple residents of a building complain of particular symptoms. These symptoms must be present while they are in the building but improve when they leave the building. SBS may not have an identifiable cause, and the connection between the symptoms and the building may not be clear.

Symptoms people have experienced as a result of SBS include:

  • Tiredness
  • Eyestrain
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Tension
  • Nervousness
  • Irritability
  • Sinus congestion
  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Chest tightness or wheezing
  • Dry skin
  • Gastrointestinal ailments

Building-Related Illness: The Basics

Building-related illness (BRI) involves a clinically diagnosable illness. It has a clear and direct link to a building and has an identifiable source of air pollution. Some of these illnesses are:

  • Inhalation fever
  • Rhinosinusitis
  • Sinus infections
  • Asthma
  • Hypersensitivity pneumonitis

Unlike SBS, the symptoms of BRI illness often remain after the resident leaves the building. The afflicted person can require a prolonged period of recovery.

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity: The Basics

Multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) is the most controversial indoor air quality-related illness. A diagnosis requires a person to:

  • Have an adverse reaction to commonly encountered chemicals
  • Become ultra-sensitive to even minimal concentrations of such chemicals

The term "chemical" can include natural elements as well as manufactured chemical agents.

Some symptoms of MCS that have been reported include:

  • Migraines
  • Burning skin
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Heart palpitations
  • Blurred vision
  • Memory and concentration problems
  • Respiratory disorders
  • Gastrointestinal problems

Causes of Indoor Air Pollution Injuries

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission's The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality, there are three major causes of indoor air pollution:

  1. The presence of a pollutant source
  2. A poorly designed, maintained, or operated HVAC system
  3. A poorly designed or tightly designed building shell

Injuries and Illnesses From a Pollution Source

Pollution sources are the most common cause of poor indoor air quality. Common sources of indoor pollutants, according to the EPA's Guide to Indoor Air Quality, include:

  • Tobacco smoke
  • Asbestos from insulating and fire-retardant building supplies
  • Formaldehyde from pressed wood products
  • Organic compounds from building materials, carpets, and office furnishings
  • Chemical fumes from cleaning products, restroom air fresheners, paints, adhesives, copy machines, and print shop chemicals
  • Biological contaminants from dirty ventilation systems
  • Mold from water-damaged walls, ceilings, and carpets

Injuries and Illnesses From a Poorly Functioning HVAC System

Poorly designed, maintained, or operated HVAC systems are the second most significant cause of indoor air pollution. Problems can start when there is:

  • Not enough outdoor air pulled in (often in an effort to reduce the cost of heating or cooling)
  • Poor ventilation from the air supply and/or return vents are blocked by furniture or equipment inside the building
  • Airflow blockage from improperly located outdoor air intake vents that draw in automobile exhaust, boiler emissions, fumes from dumpsters, or air vented from restrooms
  • Improperly maintained HVAC systems that spread biological contaminants which can multiply in cooling towers, humidifiers, dehumidifiers, air conditioners, or on the inside surfaces of ventilation ductwork

An example of this occurred when Legionnaires' disease spread through air conditioning at a Philadelphia convention in 1976 and made 182 people sick.

Injuries and Illnesses From a Poorly Designed or Overly Airtight Building

During the energy crisis of the 1970s, buildings began to be designed with airtight "shells." These shells greatly reduced the amount of outdoor air that could enter the building. The thought was that this reduced the amount of air that needed to be cooled or heated and used less energy.

While this design feature may be good for energy efficiency, it fails to take into account that the needs of different kinds of businesses, such as restaurants, print shops, and cleaning stores, will differ. These places use things like chemicals, oils, and heat to do their business, all of which produce distinct pollution issues.

Ventilation systems must also consider where carbon monoxide and other auto exhaust chemicals will go. This helps prevent issues like an underground parking garage sending car exhaust into office spaces.

Certain Potential Legal Claims and Defenses

There are a variety of indoor air quality problems that could result in a lawsuit. Sometimes HVAC companies are responsible, while other times there are additional or separate parties at fault.

Negligent Design or Construction of a Building

The most common lawsuit for indoor air pollution injuries is negligence. The elements of this cause of action are:

  1. The negligent party owed a duty of care to the injured party
  2. The negligent party didn't exercise the degree of care that a reasonable person would exercise in like circumstances
  3. The negligent party's breach of that duty caused or contributed to a reasonably foreseeable injury
  4. The injured party suffered legally recognizable damages

Professionals who may be sued for negligence in connection with the design or construction of a building include:

  • Construction managers
  • General contractors
  • Subcontractors
  • Architects
  • Engineers
  • HVAC companies

Negligence Claims Against a Landlord

Tenants can bring suit against their landlord in some situations. You may be able to sue if:

  • The landlord negligently designed or operated the building's systems
  • The landlord is aware of unhealthy indoor air quality within the building and unreasonably fails to do anything about it

Often, the most difficult barrier to winning a landlord-renter lawsuit is proving causation. This is especially true with claims involving SBS because, by definition, the illness cannot be linked to an identifiable source in the building.

Defense of Constructive Eviction

Some states allow a tenant to terminate a lease on the basis of a "constructive eviction" in an eviction proceeding. This occurs when a tenant's use and enjoyment of leased property is "so substantially diminished" that they are essentially forced to leave. This allows them to abandon their lease and the premises within a reasonable time. A constructive eviction also excuses a tenant from paying rent under a lease.

Negligent HVAC System Designs

HVAC system design concerns may involve a number of variables, including:

  • Whether the system employs an open-air distribution box (a plenum) or direct ducting
  • Whether the building air intake units provide enough fresh air
  • Whether such air is properly conditioned
  • Whether there is sufficient ventilation
  • Whether the cooling towers are properly installed or maintained
  • Whether other elements, such as roof or plumbing leaks, caused mold growth.

Tenant complaints of rashes, difficulty breathing, headaches, or other symptoms from negligently designed HVAC systems may cause a commercial tenant to abandon leased premises. The tenant may claim it has been constructively evicted because the building's poor indoor air quality is a breach of the landlord's duty under the lease.

Once again, causation is an important issue. This is particularly true in buildings where there are multiple uses, such as offices, laboratories, dry cleaning operations, printing and copy shops, and educational uses.

Workers' Compensation

Some state laws award workers' compensation to employees whose injuries are the result of circumstances and conditions of employment, regardless of who is at fault for the injury, so long as the injuries arise out of and in the course of employment.

If a worker receives workers' compensation, they are generally barred from bringing a civil lawsuit against their employer for indoor air pollution. An employee may not bring a civil suit against their employer if:

  1. The worker was employed by the defendant company at the time of the alleged injuries
  2. The injuries arose out of and in the course of employment, and
  3. The injuries constituted "personal injuries" under the applicable statute

"Personal injuries" in this situation can include infections or contagious diseases. The hazard of contracting such diseases by an employee must be inherent in the employment.

Workers' compensation may be the only form of compensation available to an employee. However, the difficulties inherent in establishing workers' compensation claims often make recovery challenging for two reasons:

  • You generally need to establish a definite time of the accident/injury. Because injuries from indoor air pollution often accrue gradually over time, the very nature of the injury hinders the worker's ability to cite an event that caused the injury.
  • You have the burden of proving causation

Property Damage

In addition to personal injury claims, you may have damage to your property as a result of an HVAC company's negligence. That damage may stem from, for example:

  • Condensation
  • Water damage
  • Mold

In particular, mold can damage drywall, carpeting, wooden wall studs, ceiling tiles, wooden floors, and other structural items in the house. If not removed in time, it can eventually cause ceilings to collapse, walls to fall, and floors to cave in.

Property damage may be covered by insurance. You should check your insurance policy to see whether the damage is a covered peril.

Talk To an Attorney About Your HVAC Claim for Indoor Air Pollution Damages

Although indoor air pollution injuries can be difficult to prove, successful claims have been made against responsible parties.

Contact an experienced personal injury attorney in your area to discuss your claim. Many provide a free initial consultation.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified real estate attorney to help protect you from the costs and frustration of construction defects

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