AFTER HER OWN family's nightmare unfolded in 1998, Melinda Ballard heard from so many other affected families that she assembled a database. These families, often suffering from debilitating memory loss, were convinced they vere the victims of deadly mold in their homes. Successful professionals suddenly couldn't remember clients' names. Parents now struggled to recall where they were supposed to pick up their children from soccer practice.
Ballard's computerized files now list close to 11,000 families. These days, she finds yet another toll the mold seems to have taken: When she scrolls down the list of names, she realizes many of the couples have split up. One man was a technology executive who never believed mere mold could destroy his home. He refused to leave. Eventually his mental capacity was so damaged he no longer could hold his job. His wife left him and took their kids.
It's an all too familiar story, says Ballard, 43, but it's not one that will apply to her household. "We love each other, and we'll do anything to get through this. We've been tortured enough. I'll be damned if I let it tear my family apart."
Eighteen months after USA WEEKEND Magazine put them on the cover, Ballard, husband Ron Allison, 36, and their 5 year-old son, Reese, won a major victory: A Travis County, Texas, district court jury awarded them $32 million in their fight against Farmers Insurance Group, which the family says mishandled their claim for mold damage. They argued that the insurance company had failed to cover repairs to leaky pipes soon enough to prevent the toxic mold Stachybotrys atra from overrunning their 22-room mansion near Austin. For now, a final ruling remains to be determined. Among the possible outcomes: A court-appointed mediator could deliver a judgment agreed on by both parties, or the case could go to the county court of appeals within the year. Until the case goes through the entire process, the family cannot access any monetary jury award.
Experts believe the verdict could lead to a surge in mold-related litigahon. No firm numbers exist, but there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of cases in which alleged victims are suing insurance businesses, construction companies, school systems and employers. "The jury decision sends a message to the insurance industry that, at least in this case, the insurer owes to the homeowners adequate coverage for mold damage," says Colleen McLaughlin, editor of the newsletter MeaIey's Litigation Report: Mold.
Stachybotrys (stack-ee-BOT-ris) atra is an especially lethal mold that creates airborne toxins, called mycotoxins, that can cause breathing difficulty, memory loss and bleeding in the lungs. Recent studies have linked molds to the tripling of the asthma rate in the past 20 years.
In Ballard's case, the copper plumbing in her family's dream home sprang a series of leaks in 1998. By March 1999, they were experiencing headaches, dizziness and fatigue. Eventually, mold samples were evaluated and found to be deadly. The family fled from the house. By then, Allison's condition was so much worse he couldn't even remember the number of their hotel room.
Farmers Insurance contends that it has pursued the family's claims appropriately. The company offered $1.8 million to cover the home's cleanup costs. But the family declined the offer, saying cleanup alone cost more than $6 million.
Meanwhile, their personal struggles continue. Allison, once a successful investment banker, has neurological damage and no longer works. Ballard had some initial respiratory ailments but has avoided any long-term health problems related to the mold. Reese suffers from a nervous system disorder resulting in tremors and neurological learning problems.
Extensive rehabilitation dominates the family's days. Allison attends cognitive therapy sessions four times a week. Once he oversaw more than $30 million in large client accounts; now he spends his time playing memorization games on the computer. Little Reese sees therapists and spends hours with his mother after school relearning such things as addition tables.
"Every day, we have school and then 'mommy school' when the other kids are playing," Ballard says. "He can't keep up with learning like the other kids can. This changes your entire day for the rest of your life."
Says Allison "This mold shuts down pathways to your brain. If you're lucky, you can reopen pathways. Some people can. Some people can't."
Caption: USA WEEKEND Magazine first reported on the travails of Melinda Ballard, Ron Allison and son Reese in December 1999. Above,the couple in their mold-contaminated mansion in Dripping Springs,Texas, earlier that year.
For USA WEEKEND Magazine's December 1999 article, click here >>>