The spread of “sick building” litigation is on the rise and roofing contractors should be aware.

Outbreak of Litigation

The spread of “sick building” litigation is on the rise and roofing contractors should be aware. A disease, commonly referred to as sick building syndrome (SBS), occurs when employees or residents of a building suffer acute health problems associated with time spent indoors. Symptoms and complaints include headaches; eye, nose and throat irritation; dry cough; dry, itchy skin; dizziness and nausea; difficulty concentrating; fatigue; and sensitivity to odors.

The Cause

What is the cause of this disease? While specific causes of SBS remain a mystery, the following are known contributing factors: chemical contaminants from outside air, chemical contaminants from inside air (most common cause), inadequate ventilation, and biological contaminants (including mold). Generally, biological contaminants should be of greatest concern to roofing contractors. These contaminants, which may cause mold and other bacteria, often result from leaky roofs and/or wet ceiling tiles.

A Serious Threat

Not only is SBS a serious health threat, SBS is also a threat to the business interests of the construction industry. Negligence claims for defective design and construction have been filed against construction companies, roofers, architects, plumbers and waterproofers. For example, in June 2001, a Texas jury awarded $32 million to a family for damage to their home allegedly caused by mold. (Ballard vs. Fire Ins. Exchange, No. 99-05252, Tex. Dist. Ct. Travis County, June 1, 2001).

Due to this new wave of litigation, roofing contractors should be concerned about insurance coverage of these potential claims. Coverage under policies will need to be examined for analysis based on the facts of each claim and the policy language under each particular policy. Determining whether or not the policy provides the defendant roofing contractor with a defense to a claim — as well as coverage, if the contractor is ultimately found responsible for damages — is extremely important.

The Cure

What is the cure for SBS? Once the specific problem is diagnosed, the solutions are usually simple. If the roofing contractor takes an active role in the cure, then litigation may well be prevented. As a roofing contractor, there are several steps you can take to be part of the cure and to minimize your potential liability:

  • Avoid unnecessary delay in responding to any SBS-related complaints (typically a water-related cause of loss where mold may naturally result).

  • Recommend respected contractors who are experienced in the drying out of buildings and the prevention or minimization of the problem (air cleaning).

  • Follow up to be sure the owner is meeting obligations to prevent or minimize the problems.

  • Increase ventilation rates and air distribution.

  • Remove or modify pollutant sources (HVAC system maintenance, replacing water-stained ceiling tiles and carpets).

Roofers are among the contractors with greater exposure to the spread of SBS litigation. Fortunately, active steps can be taken to prevent or minimize potential liability. Be sure to contact your insurance carrier to see if you are covered for SBS-related claims.