Moldy hold: Unit no match for wetness

Some lessons are more expensive than others, as Kimberly Kelly can tell you from personal experience. She's lost, by her estimate, $23,000 in household goods.

That would be hard on anyone, but some of what she lost is irreplaceable– the baby blanket her minister's wife knitted for her son, for instance. A few weeks after he was born, the woman died.

Kelly had to discard it because, along with everything else, it had been contaminated by mold while being stored in an 18' x 10' mobile storage unit. Kelly and her husband, who are staying with her grandparents in Troy while they build a house, rented the unit in late May from Mobile Mini. The Arizona-based company processed the rental through its office in Ashland.

It was delivered on May 28 and, according to Kelly, installed on top of "old, wet, moldy leaves" beneath a stand of trees next to the house. It was also not level. Even so, the contents weathered June and July in good condition.

Over the course of one week in early August, however, everything changed. Kelly's husband went out one day to retrieve something and discovered that water had come in through the keyhole andperhaps– through small vents in the floor. There was mold, and lots of it.

The couple salvaged what they could, but that wasn't much. By Kelly's account, they did over 30 loads of laundry with bleach, but the mold was so pervasive that many things still had to be discarded. Items such as a large couch– which, as I saw for myself, was covered in mold– were a total loss.

To complicate matters, both Kelly and her husband are "severe asthmatics," and their daughter is at risk as well; Kelly reports that she had pneumonia twice last year.

At the end of August, they received a check for $5,300. While they weren't satisfied, they also agreed to accept Mobile Mini's settlement.

Katherine Callaway, the company's risk manager, claims that the settlement exceeded Mobile Mini's maximum liability, which is $2,300 for 18' x 10' units. She faxed me the Kellys' signed contract, which includes the following statement on the first page and in all caps: "Maximum contents value $2,300."

Callaway reports that she "convinced upper management" to increase the settlement to $5,300 by calculating Mobile Mini's "break-even point" if the Kellys sued– that is, what the company would pay a lawyer to defend them against a claim, even though Callaway believed that the court would uphold the terms of the contract.

Callaway, like Kelly, placed blame on the unit's location, which everyone agrees isn't level. How it ended up that way, however, is in dispute. Callaway claims that employees who delivered the unit suggested a level spot that would likely be drier, but that Kelly's grandfather, Galen Murphy– who was home alone when it arrived– rejected that and "directed [them] where to place the unit."

Murphy says that's not how it happened. He had cleared a space that would, in his opinion, have been okay, but it was rejected as inaccessible by the two men who arrived at 5pm on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend and, by Murphy's account, mainly wanted to finish the job and get back to Ashland.

"It should have been jacked up," Murphy states, so that something like "an 8-inch cinder block" could have been wedged under a back corner. Instead, he claims, the men neglected to see whether the unit was stable before they "sped away" to start their holiday weekend.

Kelly now regrets using outdoor storage for household goods and believes such units are better suited to construction equipment or outdoor furniture. Even so, she's looking at larger priorities: "Everything," she says, "happens for a reason"; they'll replace what they can, build their new home, and go on.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at Box 4553, Charlottesville 22905.