Toxic mold breeds lawsuits
Area homeowners take insurance companies to court over problems
By Cheryl Powell
Beacon Journal medical writer
Lawsuits over toxic mold have been flooding courtrooms in some parts of the
country. Now these complaints are starting to seep into Akron-area courts as
In two suits recently filed in Summit and Stark counties, homeowners are accusing
their insurance companies of not paying to correct water damage that led to
``People are getting aware,'' said Cleveland attorney Edward Heben, who is representing
both property owners. ``People are getting sick.''
He called toxic mold ``the asbestos problem of the 2000s.''
Finding mold inside a building isn't a new phenomenon. But in recent years,
peoplehave become increasingly concerned about possible health problems caused
by certain toxic molds.
The fungus most commonly implicated in toxic complaints is a greenish-black
mold called stachybotrys, which grows on wood or paper. But other molds also
are capable of releasing toxins called mycotoxins.
Toxic mold exposure is suspected in, but not scientifically linked to, rare
health problems, such as memory loss or bleeding in the lungs of infants or
young children, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But any mold, not just toxic ones, can cause allergy or asthma symptoms in people
with underlying health problems, particularly those with allergies, asthma or
respiratory conditions, said Dr. Dorr G. Dearborn, a professor of pediatrics
at Case Western Reserve University and Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital
And people with suppressed immune systems, such as cancer patients undergoing
chemotherapy, run the risk of developing fungal infections if exposed to mold.
``They are at most risk of having problems if they're in a moldy environment,''
Dearborn helped investigate more than a dozen cases in Cleveland in which babies
developed pulmonary hemorrhages after apparent mold exposure.
``This is still not scientifically proven,'' he said, ``but we have a close
enough association to justify a public health prevention program.''
John Barker says he knows the risks of mold exposure all too well.
The 64-year-old Coventry Township man started having difficulties breathing
about a year ago.
``I was coughing and dizzy and getting headaches,'' he recalled. ``All my joints
were aching. I could hardly walk. I could hardly breathe.''
In August 2000, Barker's basement flooded after a pipe burst.
Barker said the company that insures his home, Cincinnati Insurance Co., didn't
respond to his claim until three months later and, even then, the insurance
representative did nothing about the black-colored mold that had started to
Still, Barker never suspected that his spacious house in the Portage Lakes area
was making him sick until Internet research prompted him to hire an environmental
The subsequent tests this May discovered unsafe levels of mold toxins throughout
the house, said Barker, who immediately moved out of his 3,200-square-foot house
into a 400-square-foot former garage on his property.
Earlier this month in Summit County Common Pleas Court, Barker filed a lawsuit
against his insurance company, seeking actual damages of $500,000, as well as
punitive damages and attorney fees.
``The thing that makes me the most angry,'' Heben said, ``is he had to stay
in that house from August 2000 to May 2002 with mold. They knew the dangers
of mold. That's uncalled for, and not civilized.''
A spokeswoman for Cincinnati Insurance Co. declined to comment.
Dearborn said more research is needed to determine exactly how much mold must
be present and how long people must be exposed before they experience health
``If you inhale enough mold, you're going to get sick,'' he said. ``We don't
know what is `enough.' ''
Still, that's not stopping people nationwide from filing lawsuits -- and juries
from awarding them multimillion-dollar verdicts.
A case in Texas made national headlines last year when a woman was awarded $32
million after she sued her insurance company because it didn't cover mold damage
``It's an issue that's hotly contested in the courtroom,'' said Colleen Keenan,
editor of the specialty publication Mealey's Litigation Report: Mold, ``and,
at this point, it seems like it's up to the jury to decide how much damage mold
Nationwide, thousands of people recently have filed suits over toxic mold, Keenan
said. The suits have been most common in Texas and California.
Though insurance companies have been among the most frequently named defendants,
suits also have been filed against home builders, contractors, landlords, school
systems and employers.
Mold suits have ``been around for at least five years, but then (they) took
off within the last few years,'' Keenan said.
To avoid problems, many insurance companies have been adding clarifying language
to their homeowners policies to better explain when mold damage is covered.
For at least 10 years, most insurers have excluded losses caused by mold, except
for when the mold is caused by a covered calamity, such as a burst water pipe,
said Mitch Wilson, spokesman for the Ohio Insurance Institute, a trade association.
According to a recent survey by the insurance institute, 25 percent limit the
amount they'll pay for mold damage caused by a covered peril. Another 22 percent
won't pay to clean up mold damage, regardless of the cause.
In Barker's case, he wants the insurance company to tear down his home and build
a new one in its place.
``We're saying we want this house totaled,'' said Heben, his attorney. ``It's
unlivable. There's no way they can fix this house.''
Tips to avoid mold
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has the following recommendations
to help cut the risk of mold problems in a home or other building:
. Keep humidity levels below 50 percent.
. Use an air conditioner or dehumidifier during humid months.
. Be sure the building has adequate ventilation, including exhaust fans in the
kitchen and bathrooms.
. Use mold inhibitors that can be added to paints.
. Clean bathrooms with mold-killing products.
. Do not carpet bathrooms.
. Remove and replace flooded carpets.
. Inspect buildings regularly for water damage and visible mold.
. Correct mold-causing problems, such as water leaks, condensation and flooding
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