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Workers in California Sue Agency Landlord, Allege Poor Indoor Air Quality Caused Mold

Twenty-four California employees filed individual claims against their agency's landlord Dec. 18, 2002, alleging that toxic mold on the work premises caused them to suffer a variety of health problems (Haag v. Lawrence Family LLC, , Cal. Super. Ct., No. 28801, complaint filed12/18/02).

The complaints, filed in the Superior Court of San Benito County, allege that "chronic water intrusion and leakage" at a building leased by the Department of Child Support Services led to the growth of toxic mold, including stachybotrys.

The claims further allege that the landlord, Lawrence Family LLC, was repeatedly told about the mold problem and resulting poor air quality but did nothing despite promises to rectify the situation.

As a result of the mold exposure, the 24 employees of the San Benito County Department of Child Support Services experienced respiratory, gastrointestinal, sinus, and skin problems, said Charles Kelly II, an attorney at San Francisco-based law firm Hersh & Hersh who is representing the workers.

According to the World Wide Web site of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, toxic molds release spores that harbor chemicals called mycotoxins. Breathing the spores and mycotoxins can cause problems such as eye irritation, wheezing, and shortness of breath, depending on the individual's sensitivity. People with chronic respiratory diseases could experience breathing difficulties.

Kelly said that tests conducted on behalf of the employees and the county have confirmed the presence of stachybotrys and other toxic molds throughout the one-story building.

Linda Kansteiner, an attorney representing the building's landlord, was not available for comment. A press statement issued by Hersh & Hersh said that the landlord has until Feb. 8 to respond to the claims.

Workplace Exposure to Toxic Molds.
In the employer/employee context, civil claims alleging injury from workplace exposure to toxic molds are relatively rare because of the exclusive remedy of workers' compensation laws, Kelly said. Employers often own the buildings in which their employees work, and work-related injuries are addressed solely through the workers' compensation system.

"This case is unique because the county leases the building in which these employees work from a private land owner, so that's why we're able to sue the land owner in a civil action," Kelly explained.

Toxic mold has become more prevalent in the news because of increasing awareness within the medical and scientific communities about the dangers and risks of the molds. Lawsuits based on mold-related injuries correspondingly will become more common, Kelly said. "You're going to see many more lawsuits against property owners who are not taking care of their properties," he said.

In their separate claims, the 24 county employees are requesting damages for medical bills, loss of earning capacity, pain and suffering and emotional distress, and for the costs of future medical monitoring.

A few of the workers have filed workers' compensation claims, Kelly said.


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