Entertainer Ed McMahon is suing his insurance company for more than $20 million, alleging that he was sickened by toxic mold that spread through his Beverly Hills house after contractors cleaning up water damage from a broken pipe botched the job.
McMahon and his wife, Pamela, became ill from the mold, as did members of their household staff, according to the Los Angeles County Superior Court suit. The McMahons also blame the mold for the death of the family dog, Muffin.
Their suit, the latest of many in recent years over toxic mold, was filed late Monday against American Equity Insurance Co., a pair of insurance adjusters and several environmental cleanup contractors. It seeks monetary damages for alleged breach of contract, negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
A spokeswoman for the insurance company declined to comment.
The trouble began in late July, when a pipe broke in the couple's six-bedroom Mediterranean-style house, which was filled with memorabilia from Ed McMahon's long television career. The den was flooded. A month later, mold was discovered in the den.
The McMahons charge in court papers that they were assured they were safe and could remain in the house during the cleanup, even as the mold spread through the heating and air conditioning ducts to their bedroom. It invaded the closets, contaminating their clothes. It also was found under the Jacuzzi in the master bathroom.
The McMahons questioned the contractors' cleanup methods, including simply painting over the mold. As the job became more expensive and complex, the insurance company and its contractors abandoned it, the suit charges.
"They covered it until they realized how expensive it was, and then they covered up," said McMahon lawyer Allan Browne. "What they did was spread the mold by allowing it to go into the air conditioning and heating ducts. When they screwed up, they started saying, 'Maybe we're not responsible for this job.'"
"When your family loses its health and your home is a wasteland, that's a colossal disaster," McMahon said Tuesday.
The McMahons' 8,000-square-foot house overlooking Coldwater Canyon stands gutted as the entertainer, his insurance company and the environmental cleanup contractors argue over who should pay to finish the cleanup, according to court papers. The McMahons are renting a $23,000-a-month house and, Browne said, have no idea where their insurance company has stored their clothing, furniture, artwork and memorabilia.
"Hopefully, it's safe, but we don't know where it is," Browne said.
Awareness of toxic mold has increased in recent years because of a spate of lawsuits. Among the most prominent litigants is Erin Brockovich, who discovered mold in the house she bought when the story of her legal crusade on behalf of pollution victims was turned into a movie starring Julia Roberts.
In response to the increased litigation, insurance rates have spiked in some states. Insurers in some areas have stopped writing policies or offer only bare-bones ones that don't cover mold problems.
In June, for example, Farmers Insurance Group lost a $32-million lawsuit filed by a Texas family that claimed toxic mold in their home caused severe health problems. The jury found that the insurer failed to pay for needed repairs for a water leak, which allowed mold to grow rampant in the house, making it uninhabitable.
In California, Gov. Gray Davis signed the 2001 Toxic Mold Disclosure Act, which went into effect in January. The law requires anyone selling, leasing or transferring property to disclose any potentially dangerous mold problem.
"The mold that grew in this case was the poisonous variety, stachybotrys chartarum," Browne said. "This is the most dangerous mold of all. It can cause death in people who are susceptible to respiratory ailments."
The McMahons' dog, a mutt who resembled a sheep dog, was in perfect health until she suddenly became sick at about the same time the mold was discovered, Browne said. "She was a sweetheart of a dog, incredibly smart, as frisky as you can imagine," the lawyer said. "All of a sudden she got this terrible respiratory ailment, and they had to put her down," Browne said.
And then, McMahon's and his wife's health began to suffer.
McMahon, best known as the affable sidekick to talk show host Johnny Carson, spent most of the fall coughing, sneezing and congested. "Nobody could figure out why he was unable to breathe," Browne said. He spent four months on antibiotics and had to cancel several speaking engagements. Finally, his doctor ordered him out of the house and his health improved.