You’ve heard about Nashville’s historic flood almost six weeks ago and all the damage that it has caused to thousands of homes throughout Middle Tennessee. Just this morning, Nashville Metro government sent 305 buyout letters to homeowners whose homes were damaged within the floodway, the area where water flows most swiftly during a flood. Today’s post is about a decision released yesterday by the Court of Appeals of Tennessee regarding what may occur when a restoration contractor fails to remediate toxic mold following significant water damage.
In Victoria Dutton v. Farmers Group, the Plaintiffs’ home was flooded and incurred severe water and mold damage when the hot water tank burst. The Plaintiffs began to experience various illnesses after moving back into the home. Despite assurances from ServePro (the remediation contractor) and the Plaintiffs’ insurance carrier that the home was safe, the Plaintiffs discovered that their home was contaminated with toxic mold almost three years after moving back into the home. The Plaintiffs filed suit against various defendants alleging distinct causes of action.
The trial court held that the Plaintiffs’ claims were barred by the applicable statute of limitations. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the discovery rule tolled the applicable statute of limitations. In Tennessee, the discovery rule provides that a cause of action accrues and the statute of limitation begins to run when the plaintiff knows or should have known that an injury has been sustained as a result of some wrongful or tortuous conduct by the defendant.
In this case, the Plaintiffs did not connect their illnesses to the toxic mold exposure in the home until close to three years after they moved back in the home. The Court found that the defendants attempted to remediate the mold issues in 2002 and the Plaintiffs had a good faith belief that the problem was resolved. The Plaintiffs did not discover until 2005 that the flooring throughout the home was not removed as originally advised in the 2002 cleanup of the home. After testing, it was found that the linoleum flooring was severely contaminated with toxic mold spores. The Court reasoned:
Without the obvious signs of mold contamination in the home, Plaintiffs had no indicators that mold contamination caused their health problems. . . . Eventually, [the insurer] retested the home, which confirmed that Plaintiffs’ home was contaminated with toxic mold. Until a doctor mentioned a possible allergic reaction as to the cause of [Plaintiffs] injuries, Plaintiffs did not have sufficient facts to investigate their potential claims. Under these circumstances the discovery rule tolled the statute of limitations.
The Victoria Dutton case is a good example of how the courts will apply the discovery rule to personal and property damages cases involving residential construction. Factually, the case also highlights the severity and seriousness of toxic mold exposure following a significant flooding event. Finally, the case demonstrates that there may be certain substantive defenses in your state that preclude you from recovering on a claim including, but not limited to, a statute of limitations, the discovery rule, and the tolling of the statute of limitations.
Image: Eric Hamiter