What most people think they know about mold and its effects on your health is not always the truth. Everyone knows that humans only use 10% of their brains (not true, although sometimes it may seem true), that Christopher Columbus called Native Americans "Indians" because he thought he landed in India, (not possible, as that part of the world was called Hindustan at the time) and that being cold will ensure that you actually catch a cold (also not true, sorry to all mothers out there). So while people say that they “know” mold causes serious personal injuries because they have been told it is common knowledge, this is yet another misconception. A couple in Texas received $32 million dollars because their house had to be burnt down due to the amount of mold damage that was found. The lesser known fact is that the money was paid by their insurance company for acting in bad faith and deceptively failing to cover their claim for property damage, not for any physically damaged caused by mold exposure. Most "toxic mold" suits pay money to homeowners because of lost personal items that have to be discarded because of mold/water damage, or some underhanded act of an insurance company. Rarely are the damages directly related to mold exposure and resultant health problems. Newspaper headlines are designed to attract attention, and "Toxic Mold Injures Family" will attract more readers than "Insurance Company Pays Money on Bad Faith Claim".
The connection between mold-infested houses and a particular physical ailment due to mold is a difficult one to make. Mold is everywhere. And while it is possible for some growths of mold to cause temporary damage to an allergy sufferer, there is little if any proof that exposure to a certain type of mold will cause specific symptoms in humans. The effects of mold exposure differ from person to person. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control web site states that:
Mold exposure does not always present a health problem indoors. However some people are sensitive to molds. These people may experience symptoms such as nasal stuffiness, eye irritation, wheezing, or skin irritation when exposed to molds. Some people may have more severe reactions to molds. Severe reactions may occur among workers exposed to large amounts of molds in occupational settings, such as farmers working around moldy hay. Severe reactions may include fever and shortness of breath. Immunocompromised persons and persons with chronic lung diseases like COPD are at increased risk for opportunistic infections and may develop fungal infections in their lungs.
Scientists at the CDC do not even know if the mold in your house or workplace will harm you. There are no recognized standards for the amount of mold that will cause symptoms, or the length of exposure to certain mold needed to be injured. Most people who have mold allergies stay away from hay, potpourri and indoor plants. If they are exposed to mold in addition to other allergens they may experience sneezing, coughing and breathing problems, but mistakenly attribute those symptoms to the mold before the other allergens. Many industrious lawyers and plaintiffs file questionable "toxic mold" lawsuits for these reasons. Lawsuits based on the "I know it’s true" platform are being filed all the time, accompanied by subjective medical reports based on Plaintiff testimonials as proof.
Although the CDC is unable to confirm a cause and effect relationship between mold and physical ailments, jurors around the country are still being asked to do just that. They have become the means by which the courts differentiate common belief from real science. This disturbing trend is, in part, a result of courts allowing “experts” to testify, regardless of how they come to their conclusions, their level of mold related illness experience, or the plausibility of their conclusions. The final decisions are subjectively being made by jurors, who inevitably bring their own "knowledge" to the courtroom. Regardless of what "School House Rock" says, knowledge is not always power. Sometimes "knowledge" isn’t even accurate.
In an unpublished opinion, the court recently permitted a case to go forward where a tenant claimed to have been injured by exposure to toxic mold. In Smith v. Northridge at Edison, the Plaintiff’s doctor, relying on the Plaintiff’s explanation of the facts as she believed them to be, submitted a report that essentially said that because her symptoms started when the water intrusion and mold growth occurred and ended when she left the apartment, the obvious cause of the symptoms was the mold in the apartment. The doctor claimed that the temporal similarities led him to believe that her condition was caused by the "harmful conditions present in her residence." The doctor had never visited the apartment and did no testing or investigation of the types of contaminants present in the apartment, yet testified on the severity of the mold presence regardless. The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims, finding that the doctors lack of specificity as to the type of mold spores, the lack of objective testing on the plaintiff, and the failure to identify that it was even mold in the apartment was fatal to the doctor’s ability to testify.
The Appellate Division, however, found that the temporal evidence (the fact that the "mold" apparently grew around the same time as the symptoms occurred and that the symptoms subsided when she left the apartment) and the plaintiff’s positive response to treatment, was sufficient to permit the doctor to testify at trial. The matter was remanded back to the trial court for further proceedings, and a trial will eventually be held to determine the outcome of the case.
This case is an example of the courts decreasing willingness to dismiss marginal claims or thinly based expert opinions. Problems arise when almost any doctor is able to testify as to causation of mold personal injuries, mostly based on what they have been told by their patient, and jurors are able to ignore science in favor of what they think they know about mold and its health effects. Courts need to take into account the possibility of an erroneous jury decision based on facts not in evidence, and the implicit message they send to jurors when allowing a doctor to testify on matters on which they have only slightly more experience than do the jurors.