Monterey County Fraud Unit Workers Claim Mold In The Office Made Them Sick
Update: This story was updated on Oct. 8 at 11:30 a.m. EDT.
In recent years, there has been a steady stream of lawsuits from workers -- many of them successful -- claiming that mold made them seriously ill.
Still, the lawsuit filed by Beverly Forest, a legal secretary in the fraud unit in the District Attorney's Office in Monterey County, Calif., and some of her colleagues makes shocking allegations. Forest was undergoing radiation treatment for cancer while working in the District Attorney's Office -- a "boxy stucco building" called 'The Annex," reports the Monterey County Weekly. (The building is pictured above.)
She was moved from the building in 2008, but her lawyers say her condition was worsened by mold that proliferated there. Now she weighs no more than 100 pounds and is deathly ill, says her attorney, Gordon Stemple. She's also unable to move without the help of a wheelchair. And her nine co-workers have said the mold has taken its toll on their health too, even though they too were moved off the site four years ago, according to William Litt, deputy counsel for the county. (He also says Forest's current health condition is not related to cancer, and that she is a "breast cancer survivor.")
For their part, the plaintiff's lawyers have spoken about their clients only as a group. "The only thing my clients have in common is going into this building and coming out sick," says attorney David Churchill, who says his clients have registered problems with shortness of breath, recurring headaches, itchy eyes and bloody noses.
The plaintiffs' civil suit is seeking damages from the building's landlords, Jack and Beverly Hudson, in addition to the companies responsible for the office's cleanup, Ream Construction and Mason Construction. The suit, filed in 2010, is set to go to trial Oct. 29. The initial lawsuit was followed by further litigation raised by the Hudsons against Monterey County.(Churchill told AOL Jobs that the legal team representing the plaintiffs will not be making further comments on the case, including the amount of money that the plaintiffs are seeking, until the trial begins.)
District Attorney Dean Flippo previously has dismissed the allegations stemming from when the plaintiffs were still working on site, saying, "there are no verifiable health hazards in the building."
But the county does not deny the presence of mold, recognizing that it was present from at least 2002 to 2008. But after cleanings by the county in 2008 and 2009, "we contend it was gone," Litt told AOL Jobs. "We had it tested and no excessive levels were found."
Moreover, the types of mold that were found, Litt said, "don't cause problems beyond transient respiratory problems for those who are allergic." There's no connection, he says, to other health issues like hypertension. And even if some of the workers had experienced respiratory problems, "there's no reason they should still be suffering from" the mold, he said.
Regardless of how the Monterey County case comes out, mold has been a "pressing legal and health problem for employers" throughout the nation, stretching back to at least the 1990s, reports USA Today.
One early case that set the precedent for plaintiffs winning damages for moldy workplaces was over the closure of the Martin County Courthouse in South Florida in 1995. Toxic mold was so pervasive at the courthouse that paperwork at the site had to be thrown out. A lawsuit resulted in a $14 million payout for the county after the construction company was found liable.
But skeptics think the problem may in fact have its roots in a petri dish of hysteria.
"There's a lot of overreaction and overkill," said Patrick Perrone, a lawyer for the Newark, N.J.-based McCarter & English law firm, who represents property owners in mold claims. "This is a litigation trend," he told USA Today. "Attorneys have realized they can bring a case and make money."
Either way, the plaintiffs are no doubt charting new territory. "Currently, there are no federal standards or recommendations for airborne concentrations of mold or mold spores" in the workplace, according to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration of the Department of Labor.
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Dan Fastenberg was most recently a reporter with TIME Magazine. Previously, he was a writer for the Thomson Reuters news service's Latin America desk. He was also a reporter and associate editor for the Buenos Aires Herald while living in South America.
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