Victoria Ersoff knew she had an uphill battle while defending a local door manufacturer against a complicated mold claim.
Her opponent had 33 experts lined up to testify, three times as many as she had. The plaintiff told the jury a heart-wrenching tale that she had lost her house, filed for bankruptcy and suffered permanent neurological injuries from mold in her house.
But after six weeks of trial, the jury threw out the $26 million claim.
"They saw what the plaintiff was telling them was junk science," said Ersoff, a partner at Wood Smith Henning & Berman LLP, which specializes in defending businesses against toxic mold claims. "You don't just hire a mold expert. You have to know what the issues are in your case."
Toxic mold claims have been the bane of the housing industry, resulting in several high profile multimillion dollar judgments against insurers and builders.
But they also have created a cottage industry of experts among them the L.A. law firm of Wood Smith Henning & Berman, which has gone from nine lawyers to 83 since opening its doors in 1997.
"They're very well known and one of the few firms who know what they're doing," said John Miller, a long-time plaintiff's lawyer who frequently litigates against Wood Smith's clients.
Toxic mold is considered a misnomer by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, since studies generally have found that molds do not cause serious illnesses. In the most severe cases, they may result in allergic reactions or chronic respiratory disease, according to the CDC.
Still, medical fears have given rise to a growing number of claims in regions with rapid rates of residential construction. Most of those claims have been brought by residents alleging mold came from broken pipes and faulty construction.
"There are few other construction defect claims that have the threat of debilitating illness," said Andrew Henderson, vice president and general counsel of the Building Industry Association of Southern California.
Wood Smith, which had handled construction defect and personal injury claims, ran across its first toxic mold case in 1998 when the firm represented a third party defendant in a Beverly Hills suit that ended up settling for $12 million. "At the time, it was the largest toxic mold settlement," said Dan Berman, one of the founding partners. "I couldn't understand why it settled for so much."
The firm dived into the field, quickly gaining credibility because Berman and founding partners Stephen Henning, David Wood and Kevin Smith had all left a Los Angeles-based insurance defense firm, Anderson McPharlin & Conners LLP. To further raise their profile, the partners began hosting free mold seminars for insurance firms, builders and risk managers.
Some of the firm's first clients were self-insured real estate developers and entertainment companies, such as Richmond American Homes, Time Warner Inc. and Fox Entertainment Group. Its current clients include Chicago-based Equity Residential, the nation's No. 1 apartment owner in sales.
Wood Smith first expanded into Riverside, Rancho Cucamonga, Concord and Costa Mesa. More recently, it has opened offices in Phoenix, Las Vegas and Fresno, where homebuilding booms have led to more toxic mold claims. Berman said he expects Wood Smith to grow 10 percent annually in revenue and number of lawyers.
But lawsuits could be leveling out. Henderson said judges are more familiar with the science behind mold, while builders know more about plumbing and moisture problems during construction. Also, builders are using different materials to avoid mold claims.
For now, cases keep on coming. Last month a Manhattan Beach couple reached a $22.6 million settlement with a Gardena lumber company and several other defendants not represented by the firm after claiming mold on framing studs in their home caused brain damage to their baby.
Berman brushed off concerns that a downturn in mold cases could hurt the firm's business, saying that companies would still seek Wood Smith for its lawyers' trial expertise.
"If you can litigate a toxic mold case, you can litigate a breach of contract case," Berman said.
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