Mold Blamed, $100 Million Law Suit

March 4, 2011
Written by: Howard Breuer of Pasadena Star
Pasadena, CA - Something awful is happening to children at the Kings Villages housing complex, says longtime tenant Annie Williams. Many wake in the night with heavy nosebleeds, and have asthma so bad their mothers keep breathing machines by their beds. Some have rashes resembling ringworm. She says excessive mold in some units a by-product of years of sewage backups, bad plumbing, leaky roofs and other moisture-causing defects is making the children sick and may be causing health problems in some adults. "I never heard tell of so many children on a breathing machine," Williams said this week as neighbors crammed into her living room to share stories of sick children and uncaring property managers. "There are too many sick people in here." Both the city's top environmental health official and the owners of the 33-year-old, 313-unit project in Northwest Pasadena acknowledge some units have mold and sick children living there, but say there's no proof one is causing the other. "I'm not disputing they have those conditions," said Mel Lim, Pasadena's environmental health division manager. "The difficult part is saying the mold caused that illness." Encino attorney Marshall L. Bitkower, who says he represents close to 50 current and former Kings Villages tenants, says he's so confident that mold is causing the health problems that he will file a lawsuit Friday and ask for $100 million in punitive damages. The city of San Francisco filed a somewhat similar lawsuit Jan. 31, saying the owners of four apartment complexes ignored orders to get rid of toxic mold and other problems. Many tenants of the federally subsidized buildings blamed the mold for rashes, hacking coughs, respiratory problems, headaches, nosebleeds and high blood pressure. Richard Conway, the attorney for Kings Villages owner Affordable Housing Development Corp. of Clovis, said the company has recently been testing units for mold and will soon send in professionals to properly clean those units that need it. "My clients are high quality operators who want to make sure their people are taken care of," said Conway. Bitkower said that, any time there's a mold problem, management has historically painted over it instead of calling experts. He said one of the units recently tested positive for an unusually high amount of stachybotrys a particularly toxic mold that can cause health problems once airborne. "These mold items can easily be spread and carried from Kings Villages and could destroy Pasadena," Bitkower wrote in a July 22 letter to city officials. The tenant in that unit, Rhonda Witherspoon, showed how she keeps a machine next to her 10-year-old son's bed that administers medication to control asthma attacks. She says she's sure the asthma would subside if she moved. But "right now, I'm a single mother, so this is what I can afford," Witherspoon said. A wall in her bathroom was covered with grayish spots and specks. "When I report the problem they paint over it, but paint don't stop it," Witherspoon complained. Johnny Carson's former sidekick Ed McMahon made the same complaint in April, suing his insurance company for $20 million. McMahon said that, after a flood in his home caused a stachybotrys mold, the contractors painted over it. McMahon complained that he and his wife became seriously ill and their sheepdog developed respiratory problems and died. Children and pets are particularly susceptible to diseases caused by mold spores, Bitkower said. Marilyn Walker, a neighborhood day-care provider, says she's surprised so many of the children from Kings Villages have asthma and other problems such as learning disabilities. "I see these babies being born healthy ... and degenerating before my eyes," Walker said. Tenant Leopoldo Oliveros said his three children all have nosebleeds and asthma, and he fears he's suffering memory loss. Conway provided a July 17 letter which he said was sent to Kings Villages residents, saying an environmental testing firm had been hired to do on-site screenings for mold in several units. The letter goes on to provide a phone number to report problems. "If we uncover mold or any other problem, we will work swiftly and thoroughly to eliminate it as soon as possible," the letter says. Bitkower says that none of his clients received the letter, which he said appears to be a damage-control tactic in anticipation of his lawsuit. Another such tactic, he added, was a lease amendment tenants were recently urged to sign saying they "agree to maintain the premises in a manner that prevents the occurrence of an infestation of mold or mildew in the premises." Conway defended the document. "There's nothing tricky about it," he said. "It's saying: `If there's a mold problem, you need to let us know about it.' " He characterized Bitkower's letters to city officials as reckless and unprofessional. "You have to have not only bombastic statements but also lay out some evidence," said Conway. As he downplayed the mold problem at Kings Villages, Conway also emphasized that his clients have been working hard to improve the project, which was dilapidated when they acquired it only about 18 months ago from Thomas Pottmeyer. Part of the problem, according to Bitkower, Lim and others, is that scientists are still learning about mold and its effects upon people's health. There are more than 300,000 species of mold, some more harmful than others, says mold specialist George Hatcher (www.byebyemold.com), who found the stachybotrys in Witherspoon's apartment. Last year, environmental activist Erin Brockovich testified before the state senate's Health and Human Services committee about respiratory problems and sinus infections she blamed on mold problems in her Agoura Hills home. The hearings led to the state's Toxic Mold Protection Act, which became effective Jan. 1. The law directs the state Department of Health Services (DHS) to explore the feasibility of setting exposure limits and to devise standards for the assessment, identification and remediation of indoor mold. Bitkower says he also favors a federal proposal to require mold inspection and remediation when a property is sold.