The estate of a man who died of carbon monoxide poisoning in the Gold Dust apartments in 2016 is suing the owner and property managers of the low-income housing project on the Northside.
John Joseph “LJ” Neuhaus, 32, was found “cold, stiff and not breathing” in a bedroom on Sept. 6, 2016, according to a civil complaint filed last month in Missoula County District Court. State crime lab tests later found fatal levels of CO in Neuhaus’ blood, the complaint states.
“He died conclusively of carbon monoxide poisoning,” says the attorney for the estate, Ross Johnson, of Kovacich Snipes in Great Falls.
The incident did not receive media coverage at the time.
The lawsuit alleges that Gold Dust, LLC, and Tamarack Property Management Company violated the state landlord-tenant act and were negligent in failing to provide a habitable environment. It seeks unspecified damages.
Andrea Davis, executive director of Homeword, which built the apartment complex with public funds in 2003, declined to comment. Tamarack did not respond to a December email.
The civil complaint provides few details about Neuhaus’ death, but states that an investigation by Missoula authorities sourced fatal levels of CO to a boiler in the building. Johnson says Neuhaus was in the apartment as a guest of the tenant.
The Missoula Police Department directed questions about its investigation to the county attorney’s office. Deputy County Attorney Jason Marks says the investigation is confidential criminal justice information and he cannot speak about its findings without a court order.
Missoula Assistant Fire Marshal Dax Fraser says no CO detector was installed in the room, though he believes one was not required under state fire code at the time the building was constructed. Responders suspected that Neuhaus was suffering from CO poisoning because a CO monitor attached to a responder’s medical bag tripped when that person entered the room, Fraser says.
The fire department did not conduct its own investigation after the incident. Fraser says he gave extra attention to the situation, including a building visit, after being contacted by the Indy last month.
Neuhaus’ common-law wife, Mandi Henderson, says the police report she received concluded the CO was trapped when a ventilation cap fell into a pipe, blocking gas from escaping the building’s boiler system. She and Neuhaus had a young son together, and she says his loss is still raw.
“Losing LJ was just absolutely devastating. And he was loved by a lot of people. His son still talks about him every day,” she says.
The Gold Dust complex includes 18 units reserved for tenants who make half the area median income. Homeword’s website lists public funding sources administered by the Montana Board of Housing.
State landlord-tenant law requires that landlords install CO detectors near bedrooms in “dwelling units containing fuel-fired appliances or having attached garages.” A central heating system in an apartment building would not trigger the requirement, says Tim Lloyd, Department of Labor and Industry building codes bureau chief.
When detectors are required, landlords must verify they are in working order when commencing a rental agreement, but tenants are required to maintain them during the rental period.
Tenants often don’t check detectors when signing leases.
“This is definitely something people need to pay attention to,” Fraser says.
About 400 people died of unintentional CO poisoning nationwide in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Most deaths occur in December, January and February. The Missoula City-County Health Department doesn’t track CO deaths in the county.