Mold causes health problems, spurs extensive litigation in San Diego

Jeff Mcdonald, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in Business News

Repairs should be based on long-term outcomes--not immediate costs, he said.

"The best practice is you respond to a tenant problem and you fix the cause," Riedy said. "That may be the most expensive, but if you've got an issue with a building that affects a lot of units you have to bite the bullet and fix the problem."

'Extremely distressed'

When Cynthia Norman reported mold in her apartment at the Solana Highlands complex in Solana Beach, Calif., Fenton denied there was a problem, she said in a 2014 lawsuit. Then it hired a consultant who found no evidence of contamination.

Norman, who had been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that qualified her for disability benefits and reduced-cost housing at the Solana Beach complex, said in her lawsuit that she was not the only one to register concern about the condition of the property.

"Many tenants have complained to defendants about the presence of mold in their apartments and illnesses consistent with exposure to mold and other indoor air pollutants," her lawsuit said. But the "defendants denied there was a mold problem to manipulate plaintiff into believing that none existed."

Norman's lawsuit said the experts Fenton hired conducted a "sham investigation" of her mold complaints and insisted "the air quality within the residence was fine."

Norman settled her complaint in 2016 for an undisclosed amount of money and agreed never to discuss the terms publicly.

Emily Chiappara is another former Fenton tenant who was unhappy with her accommodations. According to a lawsuit she filed recently, Chiappara leased an apartment at Scripps Landing for herself and her three children in March. Within weeks she reported a leak to the manager and complained that her kids were showing symptoms of ill health, the lawsuit said.

Fenton paid to house the family in a hotel and called in experts but by early July, a lawyer for the company told Chiappara the remediation was finished and testing showed the apartment was habitable once again, according to letters she provided to the Union-Tribune.

"All results were within acceptable levels and the residence obtained clearance within industry standards," attorney J. Paul Lewis wrote to the tenant.

Chiappara was not convinced. She hired her own inspector and got a different result.

"Mold Safe Solutions reported elevated levels of mold spore counts and dampness," Chiappara said in a sworn declaration. "I have been extremely concerned about the health and wellness of my children and I."

Chiappara took her kids and moved to Poway, Calif., with her parents.

Not only Fenton

Fenton is not the only developer or property manager to confront mold complaints--or litigation.

San Diego Superior Court records are rife with allegations of landlords failing to properly respond to such reports, although a review by The San Diego Union-Tribune of complaints dating back 10 years found no other major developer with as many mold-related allegations as Fenton.

The parents of a toddler in Escondido, Calif., sued their landlord in 2014 after repeatedly complaining that mold was growing on the bedroom and bathroom walls in the unit they rented at the Citrus Court Apartments.

"Defendants hired workers on their behalf who removed the mushrooms, but the mushrooms grew back," the complaint stated.

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Milorad and Ljiljana Vuckovich filed their lawsuit in December 2014, two months after their 3-year-old son, Danilo, died from a sickness his parents blamed on the mold. They said the landlords knew about the danger and rented to their family anyway.

The defendants, owners 485 Citrus LLC, Starvest LP and David W. Yancey, among others, settled the case for $2.2 million in 2016, although they spent two more years in litigation over the various amounts each defendant would pay.

Ana Duenas alleged in a lawsuit last year that her landlord and property manager knew about a mold problem in her unit at the Wildwood Apartments in south San Diego when she moved in 2015.

In her complaint, Duenas said she grew more and more ill over the months, before requiring a surgery to remove sinus polyps. She found out later that a broken water heater had saturated the drywall of her unit and it had not been replaced.

Owners Wildwood Apartments LLC and property managers Sunrise Management Co. denied any liability or negligence. The plaintiff filed a request for dismissal in April, usually indicating an out-of-court settlement.

Starting over

Susan Carre has been mired in a court scrum with Fenton since 2013.

Carre lived at Solana Highlands for three years before leaving in 2013. According to her lawsuit, mold and asbestos inside her apartment made her sick and her oldest daughter even sicker.

"On more than one occasion, defendants sent unqualified and improperly trained maintenance personnel to investigate and 'remediate' the mold," her complaint alleged.

The single mother obtained records in the discovery process that show she leased her unit just months after the former tenant complained of mold, then moved out. Her older daughter has experienced persistent health issues since she lived at Solana Highlands, the lawsuit said.

Carre, who sued in 2013 and has been through several lawyers, is now litigating the case herself--an effort that has turned into full-time work. She is awaiting a hearing in January.

Despite rejecting allegations in the Carre lawsuit, Fenton is planning to demolish Solana Highlands and start over.

The company designed a whole new complex on the property, 260 units scattered across two dozen two- and three-story buildings. The redevelopment includes 62 new apartments and will feature a clubhouse, pool and barbecue areas.

With a handful of conditions, the Solana Beach City Council approved the project at a public hearing Dec. 17.

(c)2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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