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May 30 2007 - Toxic mold pits family against insurer


Gary and Andrea Zinck had a three-bedroom, two-bathroom home on a quiet corner lot with a coy pond, a pool and patio bar in their backyard, but they gave it all up last August - doctor's orders.

The Zinck's actually still own the 2,100-square-foot home, including the 7,000 square feet of toxic mold growing in it. They're still paying their monthly mortgage payments on the home they bought 14 years ago. They still owe another $190,000.

But the Zincks, who have three children, have lived at seven different places the last nine months, according to Gary Zinck, including seven months in a rental home with four bedrooms and two bathrooms paid for by their insurance company.

They're not there now. The temporary living expenses covered by the Zincks' insurance policy is up, and the Zincks are at a standstill with the company, The Hanover Insurance Group of Worcester.

The Zincks' situation dates back to 2003, when an ice dam in their gutters caused water infiltration into their roof. Hanover paid about $3,000 to fix the damage at the time, and Zinck contends, did not check the walls for moisture.

"For the next three years, we were living in a mold-infested house," Zinck said. "My wife was getting sicker and sicker, my son started getting sick."

After 18 months of medical testing to try to discover the cause of her illness, Dr. Thomas LaCava of The Marino Center for Progressive Health diagnosed Andrea Zinck with toxic mold poisoning and told the family to leave the home. It was mid-August 2006.

Though their health insurance covered it, Andrea underwent $45,000 of medical treatment and still must avoid bread with yeast, pasta, mushrooms, beer and wine.

"If I stayed in the house, I would have developed (multiple sclerosis) and internal nerve damage," Andrea Zinck said. "I had numbness and tingling in my extremities. My brain was shaking, my whole body was shaking."

Companies who subsequently tested the home found large amounts of stachybotrys, aspergillus/penicillium, chaetomium, basidiospores and cladosporium. Engineers who inspected the house found insect infestation was another cause, besides the ice dam, of water infiltration and the subsequent toxic mold growth.

Now, the Zinks are asking for $300,000 to knock the house down and rebuild it from scratch. They aren't willing to compromise.

"We will not put our family there if there is a chance the mold will come back," Gary Zinck said. "This is not about greedy people wanting a new home, it's about people's health. We were perfectly happy there. This is our home. But the last year has been hell."

The Hanover Insurance Group has since offered to give the Zincks $127,000 to remediate the home and has hired two industrial hygienists and three remediation contractors to give their opinion of the situation, according to Michael Buckley, a spokesman for the company.

"All of them, they all came in with estimates of repair, recommendations on how to repair the home," Buckley said. "We based our settlement offer on all that information. We also indicated to the insured that any unseen items discovered during the construction, we would consider associated costs and cover them."

Buckley said what the Zincks are asking for is akin to someone getting in a car accident that damaged the front end of their car, the insurance company agreeing to pay to fix the front end of the car and the car owner wanting a replacement car instead. He said if insurance companies paid everyone with car damage to get a new car, premiums would go up for everyone else.

"Remediation companies wouldn't be in business if they couldn't repair mold," he said. "Mold is a fairly common occurrence, and remediation companies remediate mold every day."

The Zincks also had a problem with the waiver each of the remediation companies have asked them to sign.

One of the remediation companies, Enviro-Clean Inc. of Smithfield, R.I., wrote in an estimate, "It is important to understand that mold is ubiquitous and the goal of remediation is to bring the indoor environment to an acceptable level. Should moisture be reintroduced into the indoor environment, mold growth will likely reoccur."

The company asks the Zincks to sign a contract that says, "ECI cannot guarantee that mold will not return, and I do hearby forever hold harmless Enviro-Clean Inc."

Buckley said the language is standard for most contracts and "everyone signs waivers all the time."

The insurance company is so confident the mold problem can be remediated, he said, that it just sent Zinck a letter Thursday guaranteeing the mold remediation. The guarantee includes an offer to pay for mold inspections before the Zincks move back in and every six months after that for the next two years. The company also said it would pay for additional repairs to the house.

"Hanover Insurance has been in business for over 160 years, we pay 200,000 claims a year, and we pay out to claimants about $1.5 billion a year," Buckley said. "This is a company that is in business to pay claims and to help people pay for loss. It's inevitable you'll run into situations where someone is dissatisfied, and unfortunately this is the case."

Zinck contends, however, that Hanover was planning to cancel his policy and only rescinded a "notice of nonrenewal of insurance" after the family picketed outside the company's headquarters in Worcester last week.

Buckley said the notice letter was sent "in error."

Despite the company's latest offer, Zinck is still not willing to bend, he said.

"The insurance company is going to guarantee something that the remediation company won't guarantee - How does that work?," he said. "The remediation company won't guarantee it will work, and I will not put my family at risk because the insurance company will guarantee it will work. They're not in the business of remediating mold. If they test it after six months and find it, we've been living in it."

Any mold exposure is a serious health risk to Andrea, he said.

Another option is the appraisal/arbitration process set up by the state. Hanover has agreed to extend the Zincks' temporary living-expenses coverage if they agree to the process, which involves an uninvolved third-party arbitrator, according to Buckley.

The Zincks are living with friends and family, sleeping on air mattresses on the floor.

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