By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Of all the state's elected officials, Texas Department of Insurance Commissioner Jose Montemayor has the best reason to hope the new year will not resemble the old. Montemayor found himself refereeing the year's most contentious, if not bizarre consumer fight. The battleground was the home insurance industry, and the flashpoint was mold, specifically the toxic kind that infests homes, disrupts nasal passages and, most important, costs oodles of money to repair ("Planet Mold," February 22, 2001).
The trouble began when a jury ordered Farmers Insurance Group to pay Melinda Ballard an unprecedented $32 million for failing to repair her mold-infested mansion located near Austin. By then, reports of toxic mold driving families out of homes, among other buildings, were common fodder for newspapers across the country, though no state seemed to generate as many stories as Texas. With visions of more Ballard verdicts dancing in their heads, Farmers led an industrywide effort to pressure Montemayor into revising state law to exclude mold from the most commonly purchased Texas homeowners policy.
In November, Montemayor issued what he called a "common-sense, middle ground" ruling, but it only left homeowners grumbling that it was too vague and some insurers still swearing they'll leave Texas for good.