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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 November 2003, 12:41 GMT
Fighting mould the US way
By Geoff Adams-Spink
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

St Charles East High School
Mould on the walls proved very costly for this school
When Crossing Continents travelled to the US to investigate the country's litigation habit, the programme visited one school which has found that a case of mould on its walls has proved to be a multi-million-dollar problem.

The St Charles East High School in Illinois seems an unlikely battleground. It is a complex of solid, low-rise buildings in a quiet, wealthy commuter town west of Chicago.

The students all wear the same designer-casual look and many of them drive themselves to school.

But the school's Principal, Bob Miller, and his team have been extremely troubled by mould.

In fact they have been so concerned about mould growing on some of the school's walls that they have spent almost $30m putting the problem right.

But lawyers acting for the families of students have launched a lawsuit against the school which, if successful, could lead to a multi-million-dollar settlement.

The students' legal representatives want the mould case to become a class action, a case where several aggrieved people are able to sue collectively.

Class actions have successfully been brought against tobacco companies and in connection with asbestos. The awards are often considerable and lawyers typically take a percentage.

One of the lawyers in the St Charles East case, Michael Duffy, said that the students had suffered "transient respiratory illness" after breathing in the mould spores.

They had children here who could not make choices, who were forced to be in the building because they had to go to school
Michael Duffy, lawyer

What this amounted to, he admitted, was a stuffy nose or sinusitis. The students' symptoms improved when they were removed from the mouldy environment.

Soon after the application for a class action was filed, the school was closed. And it remained closed for several months.

More than 2000 students had to be accommodated on a temporary campus in mobile classrooms.

According to the school's management, the decision to close the school within days of the suit being filed was purely coincidental.

But lawyer Michael Duffy has his doubts: he says the school district corporation had known about the problem for some time, and had ignored parents' complaints until lawyers became involved.

"They had children here who could not make choices, who were forced to be in the building because they had to go to school," he said.

"That is a lot of arrogance and indifference."

The school's Assistant Superintendent, Dave Zager, said that the school had to be closed in order that the mould problem could be investigated.

"Part of the investigation is tearing into the walls. When one does that, one does potentially endanger students," he said.

Sensitive subject

Among the school's student population, mould is now a constant topic of conversation and the butt of several jokes.

"We are very sensitive to the issue of mould," said one student, Hannah. "We all know that we have been on the news because of it."

Fellow student Kate agrees: "We are all concerned that it will come back," she said.

Principal Bob Miller
Probably we now over-react to anything that happens on campus... We do not take any chances
St Charles East Principal, Bob Miller

According to the Bush administration, the explosion in the number of class actions is placing an unnecessary burden on business.

Requests for class actions to be granted are pending in connection with obesity as a result of eating fast food and biscuits.

Some potential litigants have named schools as being a party to obesity by allowing drinks vending machines on their premises.

Another possible area is the allegedly harmful effects of using mobile phones.

Legislation aimed at limiting class actions recently failed in the Senate.

It is an issue that mirrors the party divide: the trial lawyers tend to support the Democrats while corporate America funds the Republicans.

The threat of litigation is probably affecting decision making across the United States. St Charles East Principal Bob Miller says he is now taking an ultra-cautious approach.

"Probably we now over-react to anything that happens on campus. Anything that is either wet or damp is totally removed. We do not take any chances."

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 27 November at 1100 GMT.

The programme was repeated on Monday, 1 December at 2030 GMT.

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