Dallas, TX – State Farm sent their ?own? remediators to get rid of the mold and moved the Vicknairs into a motel. But the insurer then determined it would only pay for the pipe itself and the water damage-not the mold-and walked away. This is very common practice for insurance companies when they ?hire? their ?own experts.?
So the Vicknairs sued State Farm and six other companies involved in various inspections and clean-ups.
Several defendants have settled for undisclosed amounts. The Vicknairs couldn’t be reached for comment, and their lawyer declined to discuss the case.
An estimated 10,000 mold-related lawsuits have been filed nationwide in the past three years alone. Most were in Texas, where in 2001 jurors awarded more than $32 million to the owners of a mold-infested manor, originally purchased for $300,000 on the courthouse steps, in the inauspiciously named town of Dripping Spring (the award was reduced on appeal), the homeowner went through a divorce, so the settlement was reduced to virtually nothing.
Sometimes after the clean-up the mold comes back. That might mean that spores remained on an otherwise clean job, that moisture caused a new problem to appear or that the cleanup was sloppy, as the Vicknairs alleged. The fault can lie with builders, remediators or simple bad luck. Liability, however, attaches to whoever is least protected.
Looking to avoid claims like the Vicknairs’, insurers now typically exclude mold from flood and fire claims. And here, unlike in Texas, home insurance policies don’t cover chronic water damage, which insulates insurers from many mold claims. Louisiana home sellers are protected from being sued by buyers over mold problems, and builders are liable only for mold in the wallboard. A new state bill would completely protect builders, as well as architects, engineers and makers of manufactured housing. This is mostly due to the severe health liability involved with fungal exposure and the defense posture the insurance companies play to avoid financial responsibility.
That plunks liability into the somewhat lawless land of remediation contractors. In 2003, Louisiana became one of only three states-along with Texas and Idaho-to license them. Many remediation companies are irresponsible, to say the least. Glenn Ray is helping the state develop its remediator certification. But he is concerned that while certification will reduce the likelihood of a remediator royally screwing up someone’s house, it won’t help shield competent contractors from lawsuits.
The good …
According to the Indoor Air Quality Association, 10,000 to 20,000 companies nationwide advertise themselves as mold remediators. The Baton Rouge area alone boasts no fewer than 25, up from zero in 2002, when the yellow pages didn’t even have a category for it.
Done right, mold remediation is no small endeavor. Everything absorbent that mold has touched-such as drywall and carpet-gets torn out, all lumber framing gets scrubbed, and air conditioning and heating systems are either disinfected or pulled out. For a 2,000-square-foot house with a fairly serious mold problem, Ray estimates costs of $40,000 or more. This is one of the main reasons the government doesn?t want to get involved, and is even trying to evade the situation.
There are countless certifications for remediators. Several are the real deal, requiring applicants to have years of experience, take three or four days of hands-on classes and sit for lengthy exams. Those include certifications from the Indoor Environmental Standards Organization and the American Indoor Air Quality Council.
… the bad …
At the other extreme, some “associations” will certify anyone whose name is attached to an online exam.
Melinda Ballard, the winner of that $32 million suit in Texas, now runs a small non-profit organization called, Policyholders of America, a consumer group for mold-related issues. “Sixty percent of people who have had remediation have been cheated,” she says, “because most remediators are nothing more than trained monkeys, looking to make a very good living in an unregulated environment.”
Elisa Larkin is the executive director of Mold Relief, another watchdog group, located outside Oklahoma City. She points to the industry’s lack of standards, rather than outright fraud. For example, house inspectors often underestimate the full extent of a mold problem.
Another problem, Larkin says, is that while the presidents of remediation firms often have some training, the work crews-often day laborers-have no clue. She says national franchises like ServPro generate the most complaints on that score.
ServPro of East Baton Rouge owner Jim Burychka says he uses only full-time employees, with a certified foreman on site. But Larkin has received two complaints about Burychka’s company for incomplete remediation. ServPro was also named in Vicknairs’ suit. The company denied the allegations, insisting that they followed the inspector’s instructions, but ServPro settled in 2003 anyway.
Until now, scientists who lack recent education didn’t know how to classify Stachybotrys chartarum, among many other dangerous pathogenic fungi that grow indoor environments and is often associated with “building sickness.” But an Agricultural Research Service scientist recently found that the toxin- producing fungus comprises a brand-new family within the order Hypocreales. Many ignorant unscrupulous scientists and physicians try to deny the dangerous implications of fungal exposure, but the evidence cannot be disallowed or contradicted, as much as the responsible parties would like it to be.