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Mold causes health problems, spurs extensive litigation in San Diego

Jeff Mcdonald, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in Business News

SAN DIEGO -- Ashley Powell was 25 and starting a new job when she moved into the Scripps Landing apartments, sight unseen. The first thing she noticed when she stepped inside was the carpet.

"I'm not talking damp. I am talking soaking wet," said Powell, now married and known as Ashley Douthit.

An earthy, muddy scent permeated the apartment, Douthit said. She was struck by sneezing fits and spied what looked like mold in the windows and closet.

"My lungs started closing up and I started developing breathing issues as well as breaking out in rashes all over my body," she said.

Douthit vacated the apartment within days and later filed a small-claims lawsuit to recover moving costs from her landlord, the H.G. Fenton Co. of San Diego. The case was dismissed, she said, because she had not thought to test for mold.

"Unless you have a mold report, you can't prove anything," she said.

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Douthit and Fenton are by no means the only tenants and landlords facing mold problems. According to court records and interviews, numerous San Diego developers and property managers have been sued for mold intrusions. Plaintiffs allege serious health problems and even death.

Fenton says it responds to every situation appropriately and effectively.

"In our business, this (mold) is a serious subject," said Michael Neal, the Fenton president and chief executive officer. "We try to go in and fix the problem--not the surface, if you will."

Mold is naturally occurring in the environment. It can grow as a result of leaky plumbing or windows and roofs that let moisture inside when it rains. Fenton said its response to moisture-related calls from tenants often exceeds industry standards.

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