Life in a Fog

Did a dose of pesticides ruin a Denver family's health?

The suit was nearly settled last month for a total of $17,500, but Adams County District Judge Harlan Bockman rejected the terms of the settlement. He has ordered an independent medical evaluation of Ryan's condition. So far, the case has netted Nolan and Ralya little but a stack of bills and documents.

Nolan and Ralya have thrown out or sold most of their contaminated appliances, supplies and furniture, which they value at around $10,000. According to court documents, medical bills for Ryan were more than $4,000, and attorneys' expenses have exceeded $9,000. But they say the money's the least of their worries.

"It's difficult for us to do things the way we did," Nolan says. "We can't go and have a beer, because you can't go into a bar with smoke. We can't drink anymore. It's changed our lives completely, to the point where it's restricted us so much."

And all, they say, because their apartment was oversprayed with pesticides. "We had to play a game we didn't sign up to play," Ralya says. "This whole situation has slammed us right down into the jaws of bankruptcy, and it's like, 'How much more can we eat?'"

Their main opponent in the lawsuit, exterminator Greg Kauffman, finds it difficult to sympathize.

"I'm not happy," Kauffman says. "I wanted to go to court. These people deserve nothing. The insurance company wants to settle it, but I don't want to. There's nothing wrong with these people. No one's done anything to these people. It's a scam from the get-go. What possible motivation would I have to do this on a free job?"

Kauffman, who says Nolan and Ralya threatened him with lawsuits from the start, wrote to Parkview officials in April 1994 that "it is my conclusion that any health problems the tenants...are experiencing are unrelated to our service and are an attempt to fulfill their promise that we would be sorry."

After the March 28 spraying, Nolan and Ralya filed a complaint with the Colorado Department of Agriculture, which conducted an investigation and sent Kauffman a warning letter urging him to be more careful in the future. No further action was taken. A warning letter, says Tonya Favinger of the agriculture department, means applicators are "not adequately meeting requirements of the law. They may be attempting to meet the requirements but not exactly fulfilling it."

Warning letters fall in the middle of the scale of actions the department can take, says Favinger. Less severe steps include dismissals of claims or "miscellaneous enforcement" letters to correct minor violations like inadequate bookkeeping. More severe actions include civil penalties (fines, probationary periods or increased education requirements), license suspensions and, ultimately, license revocation.

In fiscal year 1995, 709 licenses were issued to commercial pesticide applicators, according to the state agriculture department. Thirty-five consumer complaints were investigated during the same period, resulting in two warning letters, nine miscellaneous enforcement letters, one "assurance of discontinuance," one permanent injunction and $1,500 in civil fines.

Kauffman describes the warning letter he received as a "slap on the wrist" and adds, "If there's an inappropriate action, there's an actual stop-work order. There's a citation issued. There was absolutely no misapplication whatsoever."

In January, Nolan and Ralya's attorney, Dale Garr, told Kauffman's attorney, Raymond Connell, that his clients were willing to settle for $133,000 apiece.

But that was before an examination conducted by the couple's prime medical expert--Dr. Alfred Johnson, who diagnosed them with MCS at the Environmental Health Center in Dallas two years ago--was excluded from evidence because the court ruled it "is not based on principles generally accepted in the scientific/medical community." Johnson's testimony has been disallowed in at least three other cases, Kauffman's attorney argued.

Losing Johnson's testimony, Garr says, was a major reason the couple didn't push for a larger settlement. After that, the parties came to terms on the far more modest figure of $17,500.

But Judge Bockman, who had to review the settlement offer for Ryan because he is a minor, did not approve it and in August ordered another medical evaluation of the child, which took place last week.

Garr says Bockman "wanted an independent opinion as opposed to one driven by the litigation."

But the judge might have been persuaded by the low amount of the proposed settlement for Ryan: $2,400 after attorney's fees and costs, which is little more than half of the $4,000-plus in medical bills the child has racked up.

"The amount of money that passes hands probably crosses the judge's eyes," Garr suggests. Connell agrees. "I think [Bockman] thought because the amount is so small, he wanted to have another doctor take a look to make sure the child didn't suffer any residual effects," he says.

The judge did not return phone calls. According to his court clerk, Diana Hoffman, Bockman "wanted to make sure there's not any ongoing illness. If there is, it may or may not be a fair settlement."

In early 1994, Teri Ralya says, she and her fiance were excited about starting a new life in Denver. Ryan's nebulizer treatments for a "reactive airway" condition were down from four hours a day to an "as needed" basis, she says, and she was looking forward to going back to work that summer. She was certain Arby's would give her a job, due to the many years she'd spent in the food business.

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