Renters’ suit claims ‘toxic mold’
Members of a Penn Valley family are suing their landlord, claiming their house was contaminated with toxic mold that made them sick.
A case filed in Nevada County Superior Court on Jan. 23 is the latest in what has been a recent salvo of cases in California claiming injury from fungal contaminants collectively referred to as toxic mold.
“People are finding out it’s not their diet, it’s not bad luck, it’s the house they’re living at,” said E. John Vodonick, a Nevada City attorney who filed the suit on behalf of members of a family alleging that toxic mold in their rental house made them sick.
Russell and Jamie Yokom of Penn Valley and their five children filed suit against their former landlords, Carl and Lillian Blakely of Rough and Ready, according to court records.
The Yokoms claim they were sickened while living in a house at 10950 Oak Hill Drive owned by the Blakelys, which they rented from June 1997 until November. Lillian Blakely declined comment on the matter.
The Yokoms claim the house was contaminated with toxic mold species including Stachybotrys atra, Penicillium, Phoma and Ulocladium, making the family sick.
Vodonick said family members became ill with headaches, bloody noses, memory lapses, seizures and dizziness.
Jamie Yokom and her two youngest children, ages 2 and 5, had to be hospitalized, said Vodonick.
The family kept getting sicker without knowing why, said Vodonick, until someone suggested toxic mold could be the problem.
The Oak Hill Drive house was tested for molds and found to have elevated levels of Stachybotros, said Vodonick.
After the house was tested, the family fled it in November and abandoned $30,000 in possessions – even Russell Yokom’s old U.S. Marine Corps dress blues.
The Yokoms do not want to talk to The Union, said Vodonick.
An attorney who defends property owners and construction companies against toxic mold suits said scientific evidence has not established any clear evidence that it makes people sick.
“It’s uncertain whether there’s a link between a particular type of mold and a particular symptom or reaction,” said Tami Boeck, an attorney in the Sacramento office of the law firm Bullivant Houser Bailey, headquartered in Portland, Ore.
Boeck does not believe studies were made under the controlled conditions necessary to reach a conclusion that mold makes people sick.
“Some studies say there is a link; some say not,” said Boeck.
Researchers took a closer look at toxic mold during the 1990s, including scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control.
The Centers for Disease Control studied clusters of infant death cases in low-income apartment complexes in Cleveland. The studies did not prove a direct link between pulmonary hemorrhaging in the infants and exposure to molds, according to CDC documents. CDC said that certain Stachybotros molds may cause nonspecific health problems.
The EPA has studied air quality and molds since the 1990s. The Toxic Mold Protection Act, signed into law last year, establishes a state task force to study toxic mold and decide whether to establish limits on indoor levels.
In the last few years, toxic mold has been the subject of an increasing number of lawsuits as well as scientific research.
Boeck used to get a handful of toxic mold cases four years ago, but in the past year the number of cases has exploded. She questions whether some cases are from people jumping on the toxic mold publicity bandwagon.
Boeck estimates that at least a thousand toxic mold suits have been filed in California during a 12-month period from 2000 to 2001.
Vodonick said there will likely be more mold cases – not because of any bandwagon effect, but because people are getting sick from mold. He points to EPA studies and a Sacramento award as proof.
A Sacramento family was awarded a $2.7 million judgment in November 2001 after suing their apartment complex in one of the largest toxic mold judgments ever. The judgment is being appealed.
“The fact of the matter is that those molds are injurious to human beings,” said Vodonick. “That being the case, the only question is whether molds are living in the walls.”
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