Since the movie bearing her name appeared, everyone knows who Erin Brockovich is: the working mother who traced illnesses in a small California town to groundwater contaminated by Pacific Gas and Electric.
After the case was settled for hundreds of millions of dollars, Brockovich got a big promotion and now divides her time between her job and motivational speaking.
She lives in a million-dollar home near Los Angeles with her third husband, Eric Ellis, and the youngest of her three children, 10-year-old Beth.
Brockovich says it is the house she always wanted. The bonus she got from winning the lawsuit made her dream possible. But her dream has become a nightmare, 48 Hours correspondent Susan Spencer reports.
For the past 6 months, touring her home has required donning a Hazmat suit. The house is filled with slimy black mold called Stachybotrys.
Few experts dispute that it can cause allergic reactions. According to industrial hygienist Joe Spurgeon, it can cause a runny nose, runny eyes, headaches, sinus congestion, cough, fatigue, and neurological problems.
Brockovich knows the symptoms well: Shes been suffering with them for the last year and a half.
"I could not function," she says. "It was like this hanger-onner kinda flu. Achey, night sweats, headache. And I had been on antibiotics month after month." She says her whole family suffered from it.
She finally identified the cause of the illnesses when a contractor she hired to fix leaks put her in touch with attorney Alex Robertson, who specializes in toxic mold cases. He says business is booming.
"Mold needs a couple of things to grow," he says. "It needs water, it needs cellulose. Everything we build our homes out of almost is cellulose-based." Brockovich is suing the builder of her house claiming faulty construction caused water leaks that led to the mold.
She says she sees the irony of her position: "I do a major toxic case, I get a bonus for that toxic case, and I bought a toxic home," she says with a laugh.
The mold is so toxic that parts of the house must be sealed off. But she vows the mold will not force her out. Instead, crews are eliminating the mold, one room at a time. The price is roughly $600,000.
"I'm gonna fight my way through it to the very end," she says.
Steve and Karen Porath of Forresthill, California, took even more drastic action with their house. To get rid of their mold problem, they had their house torched, giving it to local firemen for a training exercise. The Poraths had no money for expensive repairs, and, of course, no prospective buyers.
The same mold bedeveling the Poraths and Brockovich forced the Ballards to evacuate their 22-room, 11,000-square-foot mansion in Austin, Texas.
Melinda Ballard blames the mold for son Reese's asthma and learning disabilities, and for her husband Rons memory loss. Eventually Ron quit his job as an investment banker. He soughout mold specialist Dr. Eckhardt Johanning, who gave him a devastating diagnosis: brain damage.
Rons condition is a major part of the Ballards' landmark lawsuit against their insurance company--Farmers. They blame the company for the mold that has wrecked their home, saying, in effect, that the company refused to ante up enough money fast enough to fix water leaks.
They also hold the company responsible for the family's physical and neurological problems.
"For the rest of our lives, we will have to worry about Ronny and Reese and their medical conditions," says Melinda.
But the Centers for Disease Control and the Environmental Protection Agency say the health risks of mold have not been proven.
During the trial, the judge cited that lack of scientific evidence to deliver a major blow to the Ballard case: He refused to admit any testimony that mold causes brain damage--in effect wiping out the familys medical claims. Brockovich says science just hast caught up with reality
The jury agreed, and ruled in favor of the Ballards in every category. The total award: $32 million. Farmers Insurance plans to appeal the verdict.
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