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Family Claims Toxic Mold Nightmare

Mar 23, 2003 | Palm Beach Post David Deptula noticed the slimy, black filth collecting in the ceiling vent one evening while caring for his bedridden daughter who had been suffering from a high fever.

When he looked closer, he saw more of the stuff caked on the inside of the vent. The next day, an air-conditioning repairman told him it was mold.

That's when it all made sense, Deptula said the four years of fevers, the respiratory problems, the headaches, the incessant coughing.

The culprits: two defective air-conditioning units and no insulation in the attic.

Deptula was told the entire air-conditioning system needed to be cleaned. But that January 2002 revelation was just the beginning. The illnesses wouldn't soon go away, and Deptula's four-bedroom house in suburban Boynton Beach would become a money pit. So far, he's spent $170,000 trying to get it cleaned. He and his family left the house permanently two months ago, unable to conquer the mold.

Now they live in a rented apartment in Wellington. The house they bought for $237,500 the first home they'd ever owned sits abandoned at the Estates of Boynton Waters West, still contaminated. Family members say they are still trying to recover from years of exposure.

"You know how we live day to day?" asked Deptula, 41, a medical diagnostics salesman. "Whoever is feeling good that day takes care of the rest of us."

The family's doctors say living in a mold-infested home for four years is the source of their health problems.

"There's no doubt it was caused by the mold," said Dr. Michael Geraldi, who treats the younger Deptula children. "They all have the upper respiratory problems, the chronic running nose, the congestion, the coughing, the tightness in the chest, the headaches. All of that."

The Deptulas are among thousands nationwide who claim their illnesses have been caused by toxic mold, fungus that festers in moist areas and is blamed for headaches, nausea, gastrointestinal disorders, skin rashes and severe allergic reactions.

The cost of homeowner's insurance in Florida where rates are already high because of hurricane threats is expected to get much higher as homeowners continue to file mold claims, according to report from the Insurance Information Institute, a national group that monitors industry trends.

Many companies now limit mold coverage to $10,000. Some are removing mold coverage from policies altogether, said Steven Roddenberry, deputy director of the state's Office of Insurance Regulations.

Roddenberry said mold is not a "covered peril" under most homeowner insurance policies. Insurance companies are required to handle mold claims only "when infestation results from sudden and accidental intrusion," he said. For example, an insurance company would cover the cost of cleaning up mold caused by water from a burst pipe or storm, Roddenberry said.

Mike Kennedy, general counsel for the Association of General Contractors, said that while studies show mold can cause mostly allergic reactions, no studies show definitively that mold is toxic.

So far, Deptula's insurance company, American International Group, has covered $85,000 of his $170,000 claim. AIG is still investigating the condition of his home, which he and his family abandoned permanently in January after tests showed the house contained high levels of cladosporium, a highly toxic mold species.

In December, Deptula filed a lawsuit against Aspen Homes and Sansone Air Conditioning Corp.

The lawsuit contends that Aspen Homes did not insulate Deptula's home when it was built. Deptula wants the company to buy back the house and tear it down, because he said it is uninhabitable. He also wants the company to cover his medical costs and reimburse him for the furniture he threw away because of mold contamination.

Aspen and Sansone representatives did not return several calls for comment last week. But attorneys for both companies have said in court records that their clients are not responsible for the damage to the Deptula home or for the family members' health problems.

In court records, attorneys for Aspen Homes blamed the family's situation on "comparative negligence" of Deptula and his wife, Libia, and "others" for "failing to take reasonable steps to remedy the condition and in negligently performing medical remedies."

Deputy Court Clerk Carol Verlezza said Aspen Homes was held in default because it didn't respond to Deptula's lawsuit by a January deadline. At a hearing scheduled for Thursday, Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Catherine Brunson will decide whether to accept the company's late reply and move ahead with the civil suit.

They keep getting sick

From 1998 to early last year, members of the Deptula family began to get sick.

Ashley, now 13, and Samantha, 5, had repeated sinus and respiratory problems.

Taylor, who was born in November 1999, was diagnosed with pneumonia a year later. The now 3-year-old, has severe asthma. Deptula's wife, Libia, is highly sensitive to mold and has a weakened immune system.

After Deptula discovered the mold infestation in January 2002, a repairman found that the air-conditioning units weren't correctly installed and that there was no insulation in the attic, according to the lawsuit. The ducts were cleaned out immediately and Aspen Homes put insulation in that month, according to the the lawsuit.

Deptula's insurance company sent an adjuster to look at the house and suggested that an industrial hygienist examine the house for mold infestation, Deptula said.

Meanwhile, members of the family were still getting sick, Deptula said.

"Basically, the whole family keeps getting frequent infections," said Dr. Albert Robbins of Boca Raton, who specializes in occupational and environmental medicine. "They didn't have these problems before being in that house."

The insurance company finally tested the home for toxic mold in May 2002. The results came back positive in July and the Deptula family left the house.

Deptula paid $40,000 to have the home cleaned. He also lost more than $130,000 because he had to throw away contaminated furniture and lost the use his home, his lawsuit claims. He refinanced his mortgage to pay for the cleanup, put down tile floors and got new furniture.

'My life is ruined'

The family moved back into the house in September. A month later, son Joseph was born. He's had severe respiratory problems.

A second company tested the house in January. Then, Deptula learned that there was still extremely high levels of toxic mold in every room of the house, according to his lawsuit. The family moved out again.

And even while they're living in a rented apartment, they're still paying off the mortgage on the home.

"My life is ruined. My kids don't go anywhere or do anything because they're always sick," Deptula said.

But things are slowly getting better, he said.

Last month, Taylor went to a public park with her grandparents, something she'd never done before.

"When she got home her legs were all black and blue because she'd been playing so hard and she was so exhausted," Deptula said. "Most kids do that all the time."

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