by Catrine Johansson, The Orange County Register
A mother says she and her 3 sons were sickened by fungus inside the walls of a Fullerton apartment complex
A mother and her three children who claimed that their mold-infested apartment made them sick have won a $900,000 settlement, the latest in a wave of big-money payouts over fungus growing inside buildings.
The settlement, announced Friday, will come from KDF North Hills, owner of the Fullerton apartment complex, and a contractor who made repairs to the home of Melissa Celmer and her three sons. Two other parties also will pay.
"I was surprised they settled for that much," said Celmer, 32. "I hope this sends a message to property owners and managers that they need to start doing the right thing."
Tom Wilson, attorney for Rainbow Contractors, which will pay $100,000, said the company decided to settle to avoid a trial.
"This case might have an emotional appeal to a jury," Wilson said.
A spokesman for KDF North Hills could not be reached to comment.
The family’s problems began in 1995, when they moved into their North Hills apartment and noticed a musty odor. Two years later, Celmer and the children – all under age 10 at the time – developed asthma and allergies, said their attorney, Jeffrey LaFave. Celmer also had lesions that took months to heal.
"The most frustrating thing was not knowing what was wrong with me," Celmer said. "I thought I was going crazy."
Doctors diagnosed Celmer with everything from multiple sclerosis to lupus or herpes. But all tests came back negative.
Meanwhile, Celmer noticed that the odor got stronger, and she suspected that mold was growing inside the walls of the apartment.
She complained to the property-management company, VPM Inc., which investigated and hired Rainbow Construction to kill the mold and paint the walls.
But the odor remained, the Celmers were still sick, and VPM told her to call the state Health Department, LaFave said.
The state, Celmer said, confirmed that mold was causing the family’s symptoms.
Scientists generally agree that wet or moldy buildings can cause sickness, most commonly with symptoms like hay fever. Given the right conditions, some 400 species of mold are capable of producing toxins. But the jury is out on whether mold can cause more serious problems.
Court Purdy, lead counsel for Celmer, called the settlement "a pretty big wake-up call" for owners and property managers.
"Melissa’s problems persisted for years," Purdy said. "This settlement should wake them up to that they have to deal with water damage responsibly the first time."
LaFave said he believes the mold problem began with a poorly repaired plumbing leak before the Celmers moved in.
Lawsuits over toxic mold in homes have brought big settlements in Orange County.
A jury in June awarded $7.8 million to residents of a Laguna Niguel condominium complex.
Last year, two Coto de Caza families got $1.2 million. And in 2000, 41 homeowners in Rancho Santa Margarita won $3.5 million.
LaFave said he has specialized in toxic-mold cases since the early 1990s and has seen an increase in the past three years.
He blames poor ventilation and modern building materials for the problems.
Drywall has replaced steel, wood or concrete in walls, LaFave said. Drywall is cheaper and lighter, he said, but very susceptible to water damage.
"Drywall is basically cellulose," LaFave said. "Take that and water, and you will have mold."
Celmer, now living in Brea, said she and her children feel better but continue to show symptoms. Her lesions return if she enters a house containing mold.
"I also have to treat my asthma every day," she said.
Celmer said she has plans for her settlement money.
"I’m going to buy a new house," she said. "A guaranteed mold-free house."