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 well.


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 mold problems.


``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 in Cleveland.
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 said.
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 form.


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 inspector.


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 problems.


``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 claims.


``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 really does.''
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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