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For years, school officials in Palm Beach County, Fla., have tried to address complaints of “sick building” syndrome. Last month, the school board pledged an additional $2 million annually to improve classroom air quality through preventive maintenance of air conditioning systems. But the effort may be a little late. Fed up with what they believe to be official foot-dragging, the parents of two students have filed the first of what their lawyer says will be many lawsuits in Palm Beach Circuit Court. The suit alleges that their sons were sickened by negligent maintenance of school air systems. On Dec. 30, Walter and Denise Karpinia, residents of Jupiter, Fla., in the northeastern part of the county, filed suit alleging that faulty maintenance of school ventilation systems in 1998-99 produced toxic mold that sickened and/or aggravated pre-existing conditions suffered by their sons Alex, 11, and Kristopher, 12. They also claim that the defendant failed to properly control moisture conditions in the school buildings. The suit asks for compensatory damages for medical treatment, pain, potential loss of earning power and other injuries. Initially, the suit’s lead defendant was ServiceMaster Management Services, a division of Downers Grove, Ill.-based ServiceMaster, the national home services franchise company. ServiceMaster contracted to manage the county school system’s custodial services from June 1998 to February 2000, at which time the Palm Beach County School Board terminated the contract early. Also named is the company’s local manager at that time. According to the Karpinias’ counsel, Robert J. McKee, a partner at Krupnick Campbell Malone Buser Slama Hancock McNelis Liberman & McKee in Fort Lauderdale, the suit soon will be amended, substituting Philadelphia-based Aramark Corp., a national services outsourcing company, as lead defendant. Aramark acquired ServiceMaster’s Management Services division in November 2001. McKee said the school board also will be named as a defendant in the amended suit. The Karpinias’ suit is “just the beginning,” McKee said. He plans to file similar claims on behalf of as many as 60 other schoolchildren and teachers from more than a dozen public schools in Palm Beach County. The teachers’ claims will seek both compensatory and punitive damages, the latter because those claims will also allege battery, on the grounds that the company and the district failed to remedy the injuries after complaints were made. McKee said he plans to file the school mold complaints individually rather than as a class action. “You can get to trial faster than you can get class certification,” he explained. “And if you win the first, later defendants often settle for full value.” He also noted that because injury causation in this type of lawsuit varies so much from person to person, “you could win at trial and get shot down on appeal” on the class action certification question. Representatives of Aramark and ServiceMaster declined to comment on the suits. But Palm Beach County School Board spokesman Nat Harrington defended the school district’s record on air quality issues. “Where we’ve had problems, we’ve addressed them,” Harrington said. Citing Florida’s humid, mold friendly climate, he added, “People need to use common sense and look at the children’s total environment before jumping to conclusions about the schools.” But the Karpinias, whose sons’ health has improved since changing schools, said their suit was filed with the interests of other children in mind. The couple has established a nonprofit, clean-air advocacy group, the Healthyliving Foundation, which they say will receive any damages recovered in their suit. “Our kids were canaries in a coal mine,” Denise Karpinia said. “We’re going after the money to fix the problem and educate the community.” ‘SCARED TO DEATH’ The Karpinias said they suspected something was wrong with the air quality at their children’s schools during the 1998-99 school year, when Alex attended Jupiter Farms Elementary School and Kristopher was a pupil at Duncan Middle School. The boys began complaining of a variety of respiratory symptoms — runny noses, headaches, nose bleeds and sinus infections. Alex, who had been diagnosed as an asthmatic at age 4, had his condition deteriorate from “controlled to chronic,” Mrs. Karpinia said. “They were fine during the vacations and sick when they went back to school,” she said. “It got so they had to be medicated with Flonase and Claritin to go to school.” The Karpinias said they first believed that the classroom carpeting was the problem, and that it served as a breeding ground for microbes that were infecting the boys. But the couple decided that something larger was involved after Denise Karpinia went to school one day to bring an ailing Alex home. While she was there, she said, a teacher opened a desk drawer to show her a mold-encrusted camera case. “[The teacher] told me she was scared to death” about the mold problem in the school, Mrs. Karpinia said. Her husband, a self-employed mechanical engineer, investigated the situation himself. He looked over the schools’ building plans and researched school air-conditioning systems. He concluded that high levels of relative humidity in the classrooms were breeding mold at toxic levels. He said he lobbied for the installation of de-humidifiers in affected schoolrooms, but that the school district officials and ServiceMaster did not follow his recommendation. “It doesn’t matter how clean the [air-conditioning] systems are,” Mr. Karpinia said. “Without correcting for excess humidity, mold and fungus will grow. It’ll kill people.” TRIAL LAWYERS MADE IT UP? A March 2001 report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that mold caused by moisture problems in schools and commercial buildings has been linked to changes in building design that began in the 1970s. A trend toward more airtight design structure combined with a lack of adequate ventilation has led to a proliferation of buildings that are breeding grounds for mold, the report says. This has caused “adverse health problems … particularly for those with allergies or respiratory problems.” “All molds have the potential to cause health effects,” the report notes. There are more than 200 toxins identified in common molds, “some of them commonly found in moisture-damaged buildings.” More studies are needed on the relationship of mold in buildings to human health, the report says. But, the EPA concludes, it is “clearly prudent” to avoid exposure to molds. “The key to mold control is moisture control.” Critics mock the notion of an epidemic of toxic mold and say the plaintiff bar has manufactured this problem as a way to make money. According to the Insurance Information Institute, a New York-based organization, there are more than 10,000 mold-related lawsuits currently pending in state courts across the country. “Texas was ground zero for these kind of suits and it’s been the state’s most successful export,” said institute chief economist Robert Hartwig. He said schools have become a favorite defendant for such suits because “they provide sympathetic plaintiffs — schoolkids and teachers.” “There’s very little science backing up the connection between mold and illness,” Hartwig said. “That won’t get in the way of a trial lawyer seeking a multimillion-dollar payday.” HISTORY OF AIR PROBLEMS In Palm Beach County, however, the school board itself has complained about air quality problems. In 1996, the Palm Beach County School Board sued a Hobe Sound architectural firm, alleging faulty design of air ventilation systems in eight county schools, including Duncan Middle, which Kristopher Karpinia attended. The school board claimed that excessive moisture in the schools was causing respiratory problems for students and teachers. The district has been repairing those schools at a cost of $1.5 million a year, according to school district spokesman Harrington, who said the repairs are still in progress. The school board had a rocky relationship with ServiceMaster during the life of the service contract. The company was hired by the board in April 1998 over the objections of the district’s custodial employees to take charge of the district’s in-house custodial system. The initial contract was to run three years, at an annual cost of $4.5 million. But it was terminated just 18 months into the contract. According to school district records, the school board dismissed the company chiefly because it failed to meet goals in cost savings. But problems with air quality also were a factor. In 1999, county public health officials threatened to shut down one elementary school for its unsanitary air-conditioning system. And in June of that year, a ServiceMaster internal audit listed 22 schools that had complained of air quality problems. In an interview, school district environmental control officer Chris Skerlec scoffed at the term “toxic mold,” which he called “something created by law firms.” He said elevated humidity is a potential health problem in schools, but he argued that problems at Jupiter Farms Elementary stemmed from improper operation of ventilation equipment and that design problems at Duncan Middle School were “being addressed.” Skerlec said the claims of mold problems in the district were being fueled by “rumors” and “loose talk” among parents and teachers. “There are no well-defined standards in this field,” he said. PUSHING OFF LIABILITY McKee, the Karpinias’ attorney, who previously worked as an agricultural scientist, has focused exclusively on toxic substance negligence claims since joining Krupnick Campbell in 1992. He has another lawsuit alleging the existence of toxic mold in schools in Broward Circuit Court. In that action, he’s representing parents who claim that the Broward County School Board has been negligent in allowing the accumulation of mold, and that students have gotten sick as a result. That suit, Giwa-Osagie v. School Board of Broward County, goes to trial Monday. McKee predicted a battle between Aramark and ServiceMaster over who’s liable for the alleged mold problems in Palm Beach County schools, since Aramark acquired the ServiceMaster manager services division only in November 2001 — after the alleged injuries to the Karpinias’ sons occurred. “Aramark could agree to a judgment and let us step into their shoes and sue ServiceMaster,” he said. “It opens the prospect of another, very interesting lawsuit.” But ServiceMaster spokesman Steve Bono said that “generally, those kinds of [liabilities] are sold along with the business.”

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