Doctors told Kristina Baehr, who was then a principal at McKool Smith, that the dizziness and vision problems she was suffering from were stress induced.
“And I believed them,” she told The Texas Lawbook in an interview Thursday. “So, I found a government job that I loved. I loved working for the Department of Justice — it was like being in the Navy Seals of the law.”
But her symptoms didn’t improve.
She cut out dairy, gluten and sugar from her diet and started exercising regularly.
“I was going to be Kristina 2.0,” she said. “I was determined to get well.”
Then the pandemic hit and stay-at-home orders were issued.
“And I got worse.”
On Wednesday — two years and three months after filing suit — a jury agreed with Baehr that it was toxic mold inside her Austin home that was making her, her husband and their four young children sick.
The panel found the company that had installed the heating, ventilation and air conditioning unit in the Baehrs’ home was 40 percent liable for their injuries. The jury also apportioned 45 percent liability to the builder of the home, Williams-Austin Builders, 5 percent to Ortiz Sheet Metal Roofing and 10 percent to the Baehrs.
About a week before trial, confidential settlements were reached with Williams-Austin and Ortiz Sheet Metal, leaving only Woods Comfort Systems, which had offered an undisclosed five-figure settlement, as the defendant in the case.
“We had to, in many ways, redo the case,” attorney Kevin Terrazas of Austin, who represented the family, told The Lawbook of the work that went into the case after those settlements were reached. “And that was very challenging.”
After a six-day trial and about eight hours of deliberations, the jury awarded the Baehrs about $3.1 million in damages, including $700,000 in exemplary damages against Woods Comfort Systems for its gross negligence, and about $390,000 in attorney fees.
Terrazas said one hurdle in the case was getting the jury to understand a fact that, on the surface, seemed counterintuitive: The HVAC system the home was outfitted with was too big, which actually increased the humidity levels in the home and allowed the mold to grow.
“We had to explain that what happens is [the HVAC] short cycles,” he said. “Because it’s so large, it cools the air too fast and then shuts off, which creates that difference in temperature, which creates condensation and higher humidity.”
The jury also heard evidence that the installation of the HVAC was flawed because the system wasn’t wired to properly dehumidify the home, Terrazas said.
“One of the best pieces of evidence we had was the HVAC company’s website that talks about this very thing,” he said.
Woods Comfort Systems had argued at trial that the Baehrs failed to present evidence that the HVAC system was in the same condition as it was when it was installed.
Kristina Baehr testified at trial.
“It was so healing to tell my story to that jury and to have them listen and believe me” she said.
She said one argument Woods Comfort Systems made at trial didn’t sit well with her: Her illness could be attributed to the fact that she was a working mom, stressed out and quarantined during the pandemic.
“It was terrible,” she said. “They actually said during closing argument that we should just be thankful for what we have. My answer to that is we are thankful for what we have. You can have gratitude and pursue justice. It’s not one or the other.”
After two years without being able to pinpoint the cause of her ailments — brain fog, exhaustion, blurry vision, dizziness — Baehr went to Dr. Gabriela Pichardo, who ran tests showing she had mycotoxins inside her body. When her home tested positive for toxic mold as well, the family moved out and into temporary housing at the height of the pandemic.
And the hunt for a personal injury lawyer began.
“I started calling around in Austin just to find a lawyer who would take our case,” she said. “And I have to tell you, I could not … nobody called me back. I couldn’t get any personal injury lawyer to take my call.”
The search took her all the way to Robert McKee of The McKee Law Group in Florida, who agreed to take the case and worked alongside Terrazas, she said. But the difficulties she encountered in finding representation revealed an unmet need in the legal market.
“We pursued this case at enormous cost to our family, and we did that, not for ourselves, but for all families who have been poisoned by the homes they live in,” Baehr said. “And we want to make sure this doesn’t happen again. That’s what our mission is at Just Well.”
Just Well Law is the firm Baehr left the DOJ to launch, and it focuses on representing sick families and helping them “recover from the people that made them sick,” she said.
“People really need help and I can help them, and I believe we can win these cases in Texas,” she said. “I believe the [Deceptive Trade Practices Act] is a good avenue to do that.”
Travis County District Judge Jessica Mangrum presided over the case.
The Baehrs were also represented by Robert McKee of The McKee Law Group in Florida.
Woods Comfort Systems is represented by Ian Beliveaux and Aaron M. Pool of Donato Brown Pool & Moehlmann. Beliveaux did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment Thursday. The case number is D-1-GN-21-002112.