Chinese drywall prompts lawsuit
Maker accused of tainted product
Homeowners, builders and manufacturers are squaring off against one another in a legal liability fight over controversial Chinese drywall. Meanwhile, the state health department's lead toxicologist completed a five-day survey of a dozen homes to try to determine common traits and damages the homes share and assess possible human health hazards. The defective drywall smells like rotten eggs and is suspected of corroding air conditioning coils and other interior fixtures in homes across Florida. One incident also has been reported in Virginia Beach, Va. Residents are voicing growing fears about possible long-term health effects of exposure to the drywall.
"We are taking this issue very seriously," said David Krause, state toxicologist, in a written statement. "Our primary focus is the health of all Floridians as we embark upon an environmental, epidemiological study to assess possible health risks associated with this situation."
Bonita Springs law firm Parker Waichman Alonso LLP filed a class action lawsuit Friday on behalf of any homeowner in the state of Florida with a home built with the defective drywall. On Monday, Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin Co., Ltd., the company most closely linked with the manufacture of the drywall, received word that Lennar Homes has filed a lawsuit against them, said company spokeswoman Melisa Chantres. The suit was filed Friday in Miami-Dade County. Knauf Tianjin also is named as a defendant in the class-action lawsuit, which asks for homeowner damages from those who made, exported and supplied the drywall. "They made this product, supplied and delivered this product, and now the people of Southwest Florida are suffering because of that," said Jordan Chaikin of Fort Myers, lead attorney in the case.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Shane M. Allen and Nicole J. Allen of North Fort Myers, but includes "all other similarly situated owners of homes in the State of Florida that were built using drywall manufactured, processed, distributed, delivered, supplied, inspected and/or sold by defendants." The lawsuit alleges the defendants were negligent and placed a defective product in the stream of commerce, so they are strictly liable for the consequences, Chaikin said.
The defendants are:
• Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin Co., Ltd.
• The Knauf Group, an international company based in Germany of which Knauf Tianjin is a subsidiary.
• Rothchilt International Limited and/or Banner Supply Co., a building supplies company.
Rothchilt is the trading company, based in Taiwan and Hong Kong, that exported the Knauf Tianjin drywall to the United States and elsewhere, where it was then distributed to various suppliers. On Monday, Knauf Tianjin charged in a written statement that the company is being unfairly targeted as the villain in the case. The company says it only manufactured about 20 percent of the plasterboard that was imported from China into the United States. Most of the other 80 percent came from Chinese manufacturers who did not label their products with a company name, the statement said. Knauf Tianjin hired a consulting environmental testing firm from Arkansas that says their product is safe and that human breath has a much higher concentration of sulfur compounds than that emitted by the drywall. Yet, "Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin Co. Ltd. has borne the full brunt of the recent controversy over imported plasterboard, simply because KPT (Knauf Tianjin) has been trying to responsibly work with homebuilders to address their complaints," the company stated.
The Lennar lawsuit filed against Knauf Tianjin is a double blow. "In taking this step, Lennar Homes is rejecting the working relationship that the two companies had developed to focus on solutions for Lennar's homeowners in Florida," the company's statement read. A dozen residents have already been moved from their respective homes by Lennar, which is paying for their relocation expenses and lodging while the homes are gutted of the defective drywall. In addition, Lennar says that 80 of its homes have the suspect drywall and it is investigating 40 more. Lennar is the second-largest homebuilder in the U.S.; it has built homes in 16 states. "The company will not be a scapegoat for homebuilders who would seek a quick and convenient bailout based on false claims," the Knauf Tianjin statement said.
Homebuilders could be the next to be sued. Chaikin said his firm is working with the law firm Morgan & Morgan on the class-action lawsuit and that potential claims against individual homebuilders also are being investigated. "They are certainly not off the hook," Chaikin said. "They are the builder, they are the ones liable for any of the work that is performed." Chaikin is seeking a federal jury trial in the case in the Fort Myers Division of the Middle District of Florida.