Monday, June 03, 2002

Builder sued after mold evicts woman

'It's gone forever'

By Michael D. Clark,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        WEST CHESTER TWP. — Sheila Marshall walks hesitantly around the outside of her $250,000 suburban “dream house,” which she fled last year and now fears she can never re-enter.

        The 47-year-old widow hastily abandoned the 10-room, two-story home last August after a doctor told her to leave immediately or risk further exposure to potentially deadly mold that had infested the structure.

   Keep water out. Fix leaks within 24 hours.

    Be on the lookout for discoloration of walls, ceiling or anything made of wood or paper. Mold growth can be almost any color: white, black, green or fluorescent.

    Look behind cabinets or pictures on cold outside walls where condensation can occur. Keep furniture away from outside walls.

    Check around air handling units (air conditioners, furnaces) for stagnant water. Keep these units serviced with regular cleaning of ducts and air filters.

    Be aware of odors. Mildew has been described as pungent or aromatic.

    Know the symptoms of mold-related illness, which can range from chronic sinus infections and asthma to nosebleeds, extreme fatigue, severe headaches, dizziness, rashes and central nervous system problems. Do the symptoms get better when you go on vacation and worse when you come home?

    — USA Today

        Ms. Marshall says she was advised after testing by mold experts in August to leave behind 90 percent of her possessions because they are likely contaminated with dangerous fungi, which she claims resulted from faulty construction and subsequent water leaks soon after she and her husband occupied the new home in 1993.

        Ms. Marshall is suing the builder — Fischer Homes — in Butler County Common Pleas Court for more than $75 million, claiming she has lost her home, her health and financial future because of the home builder's improper construction and later refusal to honor a 1997 settlement to repair her home and remove the toxic mold.

        The builder denies her allegations.

        Her case is one of a growing number of toxic mold lawsuits involving residences and public buildings — including schools — in the Tristate and nationally.

        In the last two years, more than a half-dozen schools in Greater Cincinnati have had problems with mold infestation. In some cases, classrooms have been temporarily closed.

        Last year, a Texas jury awarded a family $32 million in a mold lawsuit. Activist Erin Brockovich is seeking millions of dollars over alleged mold contamination in her recently built Southern California home.

        Mold cases can be difficult to prove because there are no federal or state standards concerning toxic mold exposure. Reactions to potentially dangerous molds can depend on an individual's immune system. And determining direct links between mold and ailments often requires extensive and expensive medical and environmental evaluations.

        In 1994, Sheila Marshall's husband, David, was diagnosed with leukemia, but underwent what appeared to be a successful marrow transplant. Days after returning to their White Hill subdivision home, he slipped into a coma and died. His death is not part of her lawsuit.

        Ms. Marshall continued to complain to Fischer after her husband's death, saying that water leaks had led to mold infestation in the home. Fischer officials in 1997 settled with Mrs. Marshall for less than $10,000 and signed an agreement to repair the home and remove the mold.

        But she claims that the home builder made only superficial exterior repairs and then ignored her.

        “Their actions are outrageous in regards to how they treated her,” said attorney Karen Marler, who is representing Ms. Marshall in the lawsuit.

        Steve Feldmann, a spokesman for the Fischer Group in Crestview Hills, declined to discuss the lawsuit. “We disagree with Ms. Marshall regarding our responsiveness,” he said. “However, on advice of counsel, we cannot comment on pending litigation.”

        Fischer officials deny Ms. Marshall's allegations, and on some of her claims, blame the damage on her own negligence.

        Ms. Marshall, who now lives in an apartment and is a Department of Defense contract manager at local General Electric divisions, says her troubles with the home builder began shortly after moving in in 1993.

        “We were fighting with them from the first days we moved in. ... We had found some mold and empty beer cans behind the drywall,” she says.

        She began suffering from memory loss and progressively worse fatigue, dizziness, and skin and respiratory problems that lessened when she was away from home, she says. Last year, she hired an expert to test the home for mold.

        His results reported “relatively high levels of penicillium and aspergillus” and low levels of “stachybotrys chartarum” mold. All are considered potentially deadly, especially to those with compromised immune systems.

        Ms. Marshall's doctor, Blue Ash internist Richard Cutter, diagnosed her as having “toxic mold syndrome.”

        “Her symptoms are clearly associated with her home and as expected, her symptoms dramatically lessen with avoiding the home,” Dr. Cutter wrote last October.

        A professional singer, Ms. Marshall was diagnosed with asthma two months ago and fears not only losing her health, home and financial solvency, but also her ability to perform.

        Gazing at her home, she contemplates the wedding and family pictures, clothes, furniture and personal papers she says are contaminated and unretrievable because of the toxic mold.

        “It's painful. Unless it's made of glass, plastic or metal — things that can be cleaned with bleach — it's gone forever,” she says.


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