Negligence Ruling in Florida Chinese Drywall Litigation

The judge overseeing one part of the litigation involving Chinese drywall -- the Florida class action -- has issued an important ruling on the negligence claims. Bennett v. Centerline Homes Inc. et al., No. 2009-ca-014458 (Palm Beach County, Fla.)

Defendants moved to dismiss the negligence claims, arguing they had no duty to protect the plaintiffs from the unknown and unforeseeable harm of the drywall.  The court found that there was no duty to inspect or test the drywall for a latent defect, and thus to warn the plaintiffs.  Florida law does not impose a duty to inspect a product for a latent defect, or to warn others about a latent defect, unless the product is inherently dangerous (which drywall is not).

Home builders, installers or suppliers of allegedly defective Chinese drywall could only be held negligent if it is established that the companies were aware that the drywall was defective, through actual or implied notice.  But the issue whether a defendant had notice of a defect must be
determined on an individual, case-by-case basis.  Thus, the court declined to grant the motion on an omnibus basis. 

As we have noted before, according to the allegations of the litigation, a shortage of drywall made in the U.S. caused many builders to use imported Chinese drywall during Florida's construction boom between 2004 and 2006. Much of the drywall was used in construction after Hurricane Katrina.  Lawsuits filed over the drywall issues allege that excessive sulfur levels in the Chinese-made products are causing health effects and problems with air conditioning systems, appliances, internal wiring and other electrical systems. The U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation consolidated the lawsuits in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.  Other defendants, including building supply distributors, general contractors and installers, face  litigation in state courts, like this one.

CPSC and CDC Release Report on Alleged Drywall Deaths

The Consumer Product Safety Commission released a report of an investigation it had requested be performed by the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health regarding deaths allegedly associated with exposure to imported drywall.  The report concludes that the drywall was not a contributing factor in the deaths of the people who had previously lived in or visited homes reported to contain problem drywall.

The investigation included reviews of the pertinent medical records,  interviews of witnesses, and available information from state public health authorities.   The CDC review confirms the results of previous reviews conducted by CPSC itself.  The cause of death in each case was clearly a primary, and often secondary, pre-existing chronic health condition.  Subjects typically had multiple long-term, severe, pre-existing conditions.  

We have posted about the drywall issues here and here


 

Drywall Litigation Update

The Georgia Superior Court has preliminarily approved a $6.5 million settlement between the Lowe's home improvement stores and a nationwide proposed class of drywall purchasers. Vereen v. Lowe's Home Centers Inc., SU10-CV-2267B (Ga. Super. Ct., Muscogee Cty.).

The proposed resolution of this piece of the drywall litigation would provide Lowe's gift certificates ranging from $50 to $2,000 to any consumer who purchased drywall (not just from China), as well as cash awards of up to $2,500, if the claimant can provide documentation of damages and proof of purchase. That is, plaintiffs who provide proof of purchase of drywall from Lowe's but have no proof of actual damages would receive gift cards valued up to $250. Class members unable to provide a proof of purchase would receive $50 gift cards.

Under the settlement, Lowe's also agreed to pay attorneys' fees and expenses up to 30% of the class fund, as well as $1 million to the plaintiff attorneys for administration of claims. The settlement purports to release Lowe's from all drywall claims.The Georgia court conditionally certified a settlement class and set a final fairness hearing for November 19th.

But the proposed settlement has apparently drawn objections from participants in the federal Chinese drywall multidistrict litigation, who are arguing that the settlement fund is too small and that the settlement would interfere with federal jurisdiction.  The plaintiffs' steering committee for the Chinese drywall multidistrict litigation in the Eastern District of Louisiana went so far as to move to enjoin the state court from moving ahead with the settlement, arguing that the benefit to the class is too small, and the attorneys' fees too large. Ironically, these plaintiff attorneys assert that the form of the class benefit, i.e.,  a gift card, is also improper.

The MDL lawyers assert that the parties involved in the MDL have been negotiating towards a global settlement, and allowing the state court, one-defendant settlement to go forward would simply undermine those efforts.  They called on the federal court, pursuant to the Anti-Injunction Act, to enjoin state court proceedings where, as here, it is allegedly necessary in aid of its jurisdiction or to protect or effectuate its judgments.

Readers will recall that after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, drywall was imported from China to address a shortage of drywall required for repairs and new construction. After the drywall was installed, homeowners began to complain of smells, gas emanations, corrosion of appliances and electrical fixtures, and other alleged property damage. The lawsuits typically allege that sulfur compound levels in the drywall are too high, causing issues with air conditioning systems, electrical appliances, internal wiring, and other electrical systems in homes. Plaintiffs also allege the drywall produces a rotten egg-like stench and causes a variety of respiratory and other health problems for those who live in the affected homes.

So far, a few bench or jury bellwether trials have been completed, with mixed results.
 
 

Update on Chinese Drywall Litigation

The Consumer Product Safety Commission last week announced the results of testing performed by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory on allegedly defective drywall samples.  Among the findings, most of the drywall that has allegedly caused personal injury and corroded electrical components in various homes throughout the U.S. was indeed manufactured in China;  specifically,  the most reactive sulfur-emitting drywall samples were all produced in China, according to the CPSC.  The worst-testing samples of the Chinese drywall showed emission rates of hydrogen sulfide 100 times greater than non-Chinese drywall samples.

CPSC released the names of the 10 worst-performing samples, including those of Knauf Plasterboard (Tianjin) Co. Ltd. for drywall manufactured in 2005, Taian Taishan Plasterboard Co. Ltd. for drywall manufactured in 2006, Shandong Taihe Dongxin Co. for drywall manufactured in 2005, Beijing New Building Materials for drywall manufactured in 2009.  Drywall samples manufactured in the United States in the same period contained low or no detectable emissions of hydrogen sulfide, according to the agency. 

At the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue meetings in Beijing May 24-25, U.S. officials reportedly pressed the Chinese government to facilitate a meeting between CPSC and the Chinese drywall companies whose products were used in U.S. homes, and which exhibit the emissions identified during the testing procedures. The Strategic and Economic Dialogue represents the highest-level bilateral forum to discuss a broad range of issues between the two nations.

Federal cases concerning the drywall products are coordinated in multidistrict litigation pending in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. More than 7,000 plaintiffs have claimed that Chinese-made drywall in their homes emits sulfide gases that corrode electrical wiring and/or cause personal injury such as nasal damage and other respiratory problems.  In the first trial, the court ordered Taishan Gypsum to pay $2.6 million to seven plaintiffs last April. In the second trial, the court ordered Knauf Plasterboard to pay a plaintiff family $164,000.  In re: Chinese-Manufactured Drywall Products Liability Litigation, MDL No. 2047 (E.D. La.).

Cases are also pending in state court, and a state trial court in Miami recently certified a class in this litigation. Harrell v. South Kendall Construction Corp. et al., No. 09-008401 (11th Judicial Circuit, Fla.). Following a hearing last Thursday, Judge Farina granted class certification, the first Chinese drywall case to be certified. The class consists of approximately 150 claimants who were purchasers of homes in three subdivisions of the Keys Gate community there. The class alleged that those homes were built using Chinese drywall. Defendants are home builder Kendall Construction Corp., Palm Isles Holdings LLC, broker Keys Gates Realty Inc, and supplier Banner Supply Co.

The court found that a predominating common issue in each class member's case is whether the drywall installed in his or her house was defective. The trial court found that the alleged defect, the potential to emit sulfur gases that can cause damage, is inherent in the physical characteristics of the product and thus has a uniform nature. With one supplier and one builder allegedly involved, the court distinguished the case from other product defect cases in which individual issues are typically found to predominate.

The opinion noted that differences among proof of damages has typically not defeated class certification. The court stressed that if individual class member homeowners were to file their own separate actions, the court would be confronted with a multiplicity of lawsuits that would unnecessarily burden the court system and create the risk of inconsistent rulings and contradictory judgments.

While the court was clearly influenced by the belief that the issues surrounding the allegedly defective product were "unaffected by outside variables," like the way the product was used, its analysis of predominance is quite questionable.  For example, it concluded that a common issue was whether the defective drywall damaged the homes of the putative class members, and thus that the issue of injury (whether the drywall damaged all the homes) could be proved with class-wide evidence.  The fact is that enough of the drywall was imported to damage more than 50,000 homes; yet only a small percentage of that has been observed. Thus, it may be that any number of factors may be impacting the damage drywall is or is not causing in a particular house. Moreover, it is far too simplistic to talk about the injury or "damage" being caused, when there are hotly debated issues about whether there is injury to, or the need for remediation of, non-problem drywall, insulation, flex duct, molding, encapsulated wiring, counter tops, and a whole host of house components. Similar issues will relate to the causation of corrosion of a home’s electrical wiring or AC system.  

Update on Chinese Drywall MDL

A quick update on the Chinese Drywall MDL.  With the recent filing of an omnibus complaint, approximately 3,000 plaintiffs are now involved in the product liability litigation over Chinese-made drywall, against approximately 600 defendants. In re: Chinese-Manufactured Drywall Products Liability Litigation, MDL No, 2047 (E.D. La.).  Plaintiffs allege generally that sulfur levels in the Chinese-made products are abnormally high, causing problems with air conditioning systems, appliances, internal wiring and other electrical systems, as well as personal injuries.  

The drywall imported from China could have been used throughout the United States in as many as an estimated 300,000 recently built or renovated homes. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reported on studies linking Chinese drywall installed in homes to elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide and the potential corrosion of metals.

Recently, the MDL court appointed Michael K. Rozen of Feinberg Rozen, LLP as a Special Master in this proceeding under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 53. Pursuant to the order of the Court, Special Master Rozen shall carry out those tasks he deems appropriate to fully explore opportunities for an ultimate resolution between the various parties. 

At the December status conference, the court explored issues relating to the various profile forms: Plaintiff Profile Form, a Defendant Manufacturers’ Profile Form, a Contractor/Installer Profile Form, a Builder Defendant Profile Form and a Defendant Distributor Profile Form, and the Importer/Exporter/Broker Profile Form. And how to handle a party's failure to complete the required form. Another agenda item was prioritizing the many pending motions. The parties addressed some discovery disputes, including ESI.

An important issue also discussed was the the Court's general plan to establish initial  “bellwether” trials. The Court has further advised the parties that any such trials will be limited to property damage only. The parties have been discussing the protocol and procedure for selecting bellwether trial candidates. The Plaintiff Steering Committee has suggested a sufficient representative sample of cases be selected with regard to geography, concentration of properties, distinctive facts and certain legal issues. The defendants suggest that the selection of bellwether plaintiffs must be limited to the plaintiffs that have submitted profile forms where personal injuries are not claimed. A list of these plaintiff properties has been made available to the PSC and the Court. The parties were directed to continue to discuss the selection of bellwether trials.

It is already clear that the drywall litigation will be complicated. Homeowners are suing builders, installers, distributors and manufacturers. There are multiple levels of insurance litigation, as in some states plaintiffs may also bring direct actions against the insurers for any of those categories of defendants; some homeowners are also in dispute with their carriers as to coverage. Several defendants have sued their carriers. In some cases, insurance companies have already filed declaratory judgment actions on these issues. Moreover, there are cross-claims among categories of defendants, as builders are suing distributors, manufacturers, and their insurers.

As noted here before , a major issue is product identification, i.e., the identification of the maker and seller of the drywall in each plaintiff's building. Plaintiffs in the MDL have already identified 28 foreign labels that they allege may be involved.  Class action motions remain pending, among the difficult case management issues.  Indeed, some of the cases may end up being resolved as part of bankruptcy proceedings.

CPSC Releases Study of Chinese Drywall

To date, CPSC has received more than 2000 reports from 32 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, from consumers and homeowners concerned about alleged problem drywall from China in their homes. The majority of consumer complaints on allegedly defective drywall have come from Florida and Louisiana.

The CPSC last week released a study of Hydrogen Sulfide Gas in connection with its Chinese drywall investigation.  Specifically, CPSC released results from a major indoor air study of 51 homes, and initial reports from two studies of alleged corrosion in homes with Chinese drywall. The 51 home study was actually contracted by CPSC and done by Environmental Health & Engineering (EH&E). The  two preliminary reports on corrosion safety issues are from the Sandia National Laboratories’ (SNL) Materials and Engineering Center concerning the long-term electrical safety hazards of conductor metal components, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), studying the corrosion effects on fire safety components taken from complaint homes.

EH&E compared 41 “complaint” homes in five states selected from CPSC’s consumer
incident report database, with 10 non-complaint homes built around the same time in the
same areas as the complaint homes. Homes were sampled between July and September
2009. The EH&E findings were that hydrogen sulfide gas appears to be the essential component that causes copper and silver sulfide corrosion found in the complaint homes. Other factors,
including air exchange rates, formaldehyde and other air contaminants appear to contribute to the
reported problems.  The reports do not explain how the hydrogen sulfide gas is being created in homes built with Chinese drywall. (Earlier studies found varying amounts of elemental sulfur in the Chinese drywall.)

In terms of method, EH&E exposed copper and silver test strips, known as coupons, in homes for a period of about two weeks. The coupons showed significantly higher rates of corrosion in complaint homes than in the control homes. The dominant species of corrosion on the coupons were copper sulfide and silver sulfide, as determined by additional laboratory tests. Visual inspection and evaluation of ground wire corrosion also revealed statistically significant greater ground wire corrosion in complaint homes compared to non-complaint homes. The EH&E study also found that by using hand-held x-ray fluorescence and Fourier Transform Infrared instruments, they were able to detect markers that could identify Chinese-made dry wall at a sheet-by-sheet level.

The study did not link the corrosion with any long term safety effects, which are still under investigation. The levels reported, however, are well below the amount associated with long term health effects in the literature.

Like the EH&E study, initial reports from SNL and NIST show copper and silver sulfide corrosion on samples of metal taken from homes with problem drywall.

In terms of next steps, CPSC continues to search for homes exhibiting the alleged corrosion and health effects under study. Second, the federal Interagency Task Force has established an Identification and Remediation Protocol Team of scientists and engineers. This Team will try to use the results of the EH&E study and other information to design a screening protocol to identify homes with this problem.  Because professional air sample testing, and destructive testing of drywall both are costly, the Protocol Team is trying to develop quick, cost-efficient evaluation methods to identify homes with these problems. The Protocol Team will also look at remediation protocols, to see what cost-efficiency improvements to current remediation practices, if any, may be available, and what guidance should be issued on doing the work safely.

CPSC believes it has secured the cooperation of the Chinese Government to help identify the sources and causes of this problem. The agency believes that no new Chinese drywall has entered the United States in 2009. CPSC is also working with an ASTM committee that has just initiated discussions on the formulation of a proposed new standard on inspection of drywall for air quality issues.

Developments in Proposed Class Actions in China Drywall MDL

In the Chinese Drywall  MDL, certain plaintiffs recently moved for leave to amend their Class Action Complaint to expand the class definition as to defendant Taishan Gypsum, from a Virginia state-wide class to a national class of all persons allegedly impacted by defective drywall made by that defendant. Plaintiffs assert that there will be no undue delay nor prejudice to defendants from the change; the amendment does not alter the proposed sub-classes as to other defendants who are the builders and installation contractors who allegedly installed the product. The amendment would also include new assertion of a violation of the consumer fraud acts of the various states. In re: Chinese-Manufactured Drywall Products Liability Litigation, No. 09-md-02047 (E.D. La.).

An Omnibus [Proposed] Class Action Complaint is to be filed in the MDL on or before December 9, 2009 by the plaintiffs against another defendant, Knauf Plasterboard (Tianjin) Co., Ltd (“KPT”) and other defendants who were involved in the manufacture, sale, importation, brokerage, distribution, construction and installation of homes containing KPT drywall, and any others who were involved in the stream of commerce for the KPT drywall. In order to assist in the consolidation and efficient handling of claims by affected homeowners, defendant KPT has apparently agreed to accept service of process for homeowner plaintiffs who are to be named in an Omnibus Amended Complaint, and waive its right to demand service of process through the Hague Convention. (We have posted about the issues related to suits against foreign defendants before.) However, to be eligible for inclusion in this Omnibus [Proposed] Class Action Complaint and the service waiver, homeowners must provide, by no later than December 2, 2009, sufficient indicia that the homes in question contain KPT drywall (e.g., photographs, samples, visual inspections or reports identifying KPT markings on drywall in the home), and must also submit by December 14, 2009, a fully completed and executed Plaintiff Profile Form, in accordance with PTO #11. The complaint will not be amended to include additional named plaintiffs after it is filed, the court has indicated.


 

Federal Inter-agency Task Force Releases Preliminary Test Results On Chinese Drywall

The federal inter-agency task force investigating alleged problems with Chinese-made drywall released initial results of three studies last week, which may impact the MDL litigation. The CPSC, the EPA, HUD, the CDC, and the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry are members of the task force. Health departments in Florida, Louisiana, and Virginia have also participated in the task force. An executive summary of the studies, and the draft studies themselves are available here.


To date, close to 2000 consumers have contacted the CPSC to report alleged problems in their homes. The primary issues reported are: 1) corrosion, or blackening, of indoor metals, such as electrical components and central air conditioning system evaporator coils; and 2) various health symptoms, including persistent cough, bloody and runny noses, headaches, difficulty in breathing and irritated and itchy eyes and skin. Imported drywall from China came into more widespread use after hurricanes in 2004 and 2005 led to a surge in home reconstruction and caused shortages of North American-made drywall.

In sum, the three studies involved:
(1) Elemental and Chemical Testing: The study of the elemental and chemical composition of drywall samples showed higher concentrations of elemental sulfur and strontium in Chinese drywall than in non-Chinese drywall. The elemental and chemical testing of Chinese and non-Chinese drywall samples was undertaken to characterize the specific chemical composition of the drywall. The results were expected to identify differences between the two sets of drywall that might account for the reported corrosion and health issues. While the studies have discovered certain differences between Chinese and non-Chinese drywall, further studies must be completed, said the report, to determine any nexus between the drywall and the reported health and corrosion issues. The analysis was conducted on 17 samples of drywall collected from warehouses, suppliers and manufacturers. These samples were unpainted and uninstalled.

(2) Chamber Studies: Preliminary results of ongoing testing to detect gases emitted from drywall in laboratory chambers showed higher emissions of total volatile sulfur gases from Chinese than from non-Chinese drywall. The chamber studies, conducted by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, were intended to isolate the chemicals emitted from drywall. From these chamber studies, said the task force, it was possible to isolate the drywall emissions from the interferences of other materials or furnishings in a house that might emit or absorb such emissions. No comprehensive exposure and risk assessment has yet been carried out.

(3) Indoor Air Studies: Indoor air testing of 10 homes in Florida and Louisiana was conducted to identify and measure contaminants and to inform a drywall home indoor air testing protocol. The tests did not detect the presence or found only very limited or occasional indications of sulfur compounds of particular interest to the task force – hydrogen sulfide, carbon disulfide, and carbonyl sulfide. Concentrations of two known irritant compounds, acetaldehyde and
formaldehyde, were detected at concentrations that could exacerbate conditions such as asthma in sensitive populations, but were found in both homes with and without Chinese drywall. The levels of formaldehyde were not unusual for new homes, however, said the report. The results of the air testing in this very small sample of homes was being reported to offer a very preliminary indication of what compounds may be present in the indoor environments of homes in Florida and Louisiana with and without Chinese drywall.


The agencies expect the results of an air-sampling study of 50 homes in late November. An engineering analysis of electrical and fire safety issues is also forthcoming. .A study of long-term corrosion issues, that seeks to simulate decades of exposure and corrosion, will not be completed until June of 2010.

The study follows in the wake of the four-day U.S.-China summit that aimed to reinforce the notion that the United States—specifically the CPSC—will hold accountable importers of products into the United States if their products pose hazards or violate safety standards. The CPSC delegation reportedly discussed drywall safety concerns with Chinese government officials.

The CPSC stressed that this report was preliminary; the findings of each report released today must be considered within the limitations of each study and viewed in the context of the overall drywall investigation, which is still ongoing. While the studies have discovered certain differences between Chinese and non-Chinese drywall, further studies must be completed to determine any nexus between the drywall and the reported health and corrosion issues.
 

Chinese Drywall Update

On the eve of the 3rd biennial United States--China Consumer Product Safety Summit, to be held in China, the head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported she will press Chinese officials on whether new regulatory standards need to be set for drywall composition. CPSC Chairwoman Inez Tenenbaum said she also would inquire whether the Chinese were willing to provide compensation for the damage from tainted drywall.

In its latest status report on the Chinese drywall issues, the CPSC noted that it had received 1192 consumer complaints, from 24 different states. The majority of the reports continue to be from Florida, Louisiana, and Virginia. The focus of the federal drywall team has remained pursuing the scientific bases of the possible problems, and tracing the chain of commerce of the drywall.

CPSC reports it has completed principal field work for a 50 home indoor air sampling program, coordinated the state and federal response to allegations of radioactive phosphogypsum in Chinese drywall, and completed 75 in-depth site investigations, with another 20 in progress. Long-term air sampling tests will be completed later this month. The evaluation of the results is expected to be complete before November. (Phosphogypsum is a gypsum that has elevated levels of naturally occurring potassium, thorium and uranium radionuclides and decay products.) The CPSC coordinated testing and reporting results for radioactive phosphogypsum contamination in drywall with the Florida Department of Health and the EPA National Air and Radiation Environmental Laboratory. The results of the technical review showed that no radiological hazard was present. EPA is conducting elemental analyses of 15 drywall samples. EPA expects to complete its analyses of drywall samples in the next few weeks.

CPSC continues to analyze the information received from consumers, builders, importers, manufacturers, and suppliers of drywall to determine how much imported drywall may be affected and where that drywall has been installed. To date, CPSC staff has confirmed that during 2006, 6,997,456 sheets of Chinese drywall were imported into the U.S.

As readers of MassTortDefense know, litigation has been filed over the drywall issues, alleging that sulfur levels in the Chinese-made products are abnormally high, causing problems with air conditioning systems, appliances, internal wiring and other electrical systems.  Approximately 200 cases are pending in the MDL. In re: Chinese-Manufactured Drywall Products Liability Litigation, No. 09-md-02047 (E.D. La.).

In the MDL , the next status conference is scheduled for Thursday, November 19, 2009. Recently, the court  issued an order regarding a "Revised Exporter, Importer, or Broker Defendant Profile Form.”  All defendant drywall exporters, importers, or brokers must complete this Profile Form.  The form, inter alia, requires information on exemplar transactions concerning the exportation/importation/brokering of Chinese Drywall for import/export to the United States between 2001 and 2009, including but not limited to purchases, sales, consignments, shipments, transfers, deliveries, receipts, or other distributions.  The form requires information to identify any markings on the Chinese Drywall product (e.g., lot number, batch number, serial number, color markings, UPC codes, etc.) involved in this transaction; a list all trademarks of the product, and any markings or means of identification employed to track or identify the Chinese Drywall.

The issue of linking the specific product that allegedly harmed a plaintiff to the defendants who made and sold that particular product -- often termed "product identification" -- is an essential aspect of the cause in fact inquiry and is often problematic in toxic tort litigation.

 

 

Motion For Default Filed in China Drywall MDL

An Alabama construction company that is a party in the multidistrict litigation over allegedly tainted Chinese-made drywall has asked for a default judgment against a foreign manufacturer/seller of gypsum drywall. Mitchell Co. Inc., et al. v. Knauf Gips KG, et al., No. 09-cv-4115 (E.D. La.).

Mitchell filed a motion last week  in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana asking for a default judgment against China-based Taishan Gypsum Co. Ltd.  The motion alleges that Taishan has not responded to the plaintiff's complaint nor entered an appearance.  Mitchell filed its original complaint back in March, in the Northern District of Florida, seeking to represent a class of plaintiffs who allege they incurred expenses stemming from defective drywall.  The complaint names several drywall makers and sellers.  The case was later transferred with related actions to the MDL in front of Judge Fallon. In re: Chinese-Manufactured Drywall Products Liability Litigation, No. 09-md-02047 (E.D. La.). 

Interestingly, the motion comes as the Congress debates a bill that would make it easier for foreign manufacturers to be sued when their products allegedly injure U.S. consumers, the Foreign Manufacturers Legal Accountability Act of 2009.

MassTortDefense has posted about the alleged problems with Chinese imported drywall. In litigation over the issues, Lennar Corp., the U.S.' second largest home-builder (by volume), has sued more than two dozen manufacturers, suppliers and installers.  As noted here before, Sens. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Mary Landrieu, D-La., have introduced legislation tied to Chinese drywall.  Also, the CPSC reports that it has now received a total of 810 reports related to the allegedly defective drywall, including complaints from two additional states, Pennsylvania and South Carolina. That means the Commission (criticized in some circles for its work on this issue)has received reports from homeowners in 23 states and the District of Columbia. The majority of the reports continue to be from Florida, Louisiana, and Virginia. About 6.2 million sheets of Chinese drywall were imported into the U.S. during 2006.

 

Update On Chinese Drywall Litigation

The Consumer Products Safety Committee has reported that it has received approval from the Chinese for a visit to China in connection with the drywall issues, and that CPSC staff is working with the Chinese government to arrange an investigative visit beginning later this month.  The CPSC has asked to visit several sites of interest in its investigation of issues related to the tainted drywall, which we have posted about before.

The CPSC reports that it has now received a total of 810 reports related to the allegedly defective drywall, including complaints from two additional states, Pennsylvania and South Carolina. That means the Commission has received reports from homeowners in 23 states and the District of Columbia. The majority of the reports continue to be from Florida, Louisiana, and Virginia.  About 6.2 million sheets of Chinese drywall were imported into the U.S. during 2006.

As part of its investigation, the Commission notes the:
• Start of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory chamber testing of various drywall samples to isolate specific emissions.
• Start of a 50 home indoor air sampling program.
• Site visit to a synthetic drywall manufacturing facility.
• Completion of testing for radioactive phosphogypsum contamination in drywall, in coordination with the Florida Department of Health and the EPA National Air and Radiation Environmental Laboratory. 

The EPA is conducting elemental analyses of 15 drywall samples, with a tentative date for completing its analyses of drywall samples by late August. The CPSC's engineering staff has visited seven homes in Florida, Louisiana and Virginia to gather samples of electrical, plumbing and safety systems. CPSC also has hosted a call among attorneys general of impacted States to coordinate and exchange information about State-level efforts.

Lawsuits filed over the drywall issues allege that excessive sulfur levels in the Chinese-made products are causing health effects and problems with air conditioning systems, appliances, internal wiring and other electrical systems. In June, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation consolidated the lawsuits in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. More than 90 suits were on the docket as part of the MDL as of last week. Plaintiffs have asked the court to certify the matter as a class action. In re: Chinese-Manufactured Drywall Products Liability Litigation, MDL 2047.

The monthly status conference in the MDL was held last week before Judge Fallon. At the conference, the court considered issues raised by Liaison Counsel, including pre-trial orders, property inspections, Plaintiff and Defendant profile forms, an evidence preservation order, state court settings, state/federal coordination, discovery issues, Freedom of Information Act/ public records requests, trial settings in federal court, tolling agreement/suspension of prescription, plaintiffs' request for a class action, insurance issues, service of pleadings electronically, and the master complaint. A full report can be found here. 

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Update On China Drywall MDL

The judge handling the MDL involving the consolidated litigation involving Chinese manufactured drywall claims has issued a first order. Pursuant to Pretrial Order #1, the initial pretrial conference was set for July 9, 2009,  in the Courtroom of Judge Fallon. Earlier this summer, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation agreed to consolidate a number of the suits in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. The suits have named as defendants the Chinese-based manufacturers, as well as importers, contractors, suppliers and others, including Knauf Gips KG, Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin Co., Taishan Gypsum Co., L&W Supply Corp., USG Corp. and Lennar Corp., the country’s second-largest home builder by volume.

The items listed in the Manual for Complex Litigation (Sections 22.6, 22.61, 22.62, and 22.63) were, to the extent applicable, set as a tentative agenda for the conference. (That may include adding parties, pleadings and motions, issue identification and development. ) Counsel were ordered to confer and seek consensus to the extent possible with respect to the items on the agenda, including a proposed discovery plan, any amendment of pleadings, consideration of any class action allegations and motions, and be prepared to select trial dates.

Plaintiffs and defendants were to submit to the Court before the conference a brief written statement indicating their preliminary understanding of the facts involved in the litigation and the critical factual and legal issues. (These statements will not be filed with the Clerk, will not be binding, will not waive claims or defenses, and may not be offered in evidence against a party in later proceedings.)

The Order covers a host of housekeeping issues for a new MDL. The Clerk will maintain a master docket case file under the style "In Re: CHINESE MANUFACTURED DRYWALL PRODUCTS LIABILITY LITIGATION” and the identification "MDL No. 2047 ".  All parties and their counsel were reminded of their duty to preserve evidence that may be relevant to this action. The duty extends to
documents, data, and tangible things in possession, custody and control of the parties to this
action, and any employees, agents, contractors, carriers, bailees, or other non-parties who possess materials reasonably anticipated to be subject to discovery in this action.

Prior to the initial conference, counsel for the plaintiffs and counsel for the defendant(s) were required to confer and seek consensus on the selection of a candidate for the position of liaison counsel for each group who will be charged with essentially administrative matters.

It is the Court’s intention to appoint a Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee (“PSC”) to conduct and coordinate the discovery stage of this litigation with the defendant’s representatives or committee.  The main criteria for membership in the PSC will be: (a) willingness and availability to commit to a time-consuming project; (b) ability to work cooperatively with others; and (c) professional experience in this type of litigation (d) willingness to commit the necessary resources to pursue this matter.

Behind the scenes, history suggests that a key issue underlying parts of the litigation the litigation will be whether the pollution exclusion applies. Insurers will likely argue that the alleged off-gassing of sulfur compounds from the Chinese drywall clearly constitutes the actual, alleged or threatened discharge, dispersal, seepage, migration, release or escape of pollutants (referencing terms of the typical exclusion clause).  There is a split of authority on the scope of such a pollution clause.  Some states have narrow definitions which favor policyholders, while the more broad definitions in other jurisdictions typically favor insurers. Choice of law may be the determining factor on this.

One builder (Dragas Management) has already been named in a declaratory judgment action by its insurer, Builders Mutual Insurance Co.  In addition to relying on a pollution exclusion argument, insurers seem intent on showing that each installation of drywall constitutes a separate “occurrence” under the policy, and as such, a separate deductible would apply to each. Builders would undoubtedly prefer a single deductible for the installation within an entire development or project.

Concerns over the drywall have prompted legislators, including Sens. Nelson, D-Fla., and Landrieu, D-La., to introduce the Drywall Safety Act of 2009, which seeks to impose a recall and a temporary ban on imports until federal drywall safety standards are put in place.

 

MDL Created for Chinese Drywall Litigation

The U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation has consolidated a number of lawsuits brought over Chinese-made drywall installed in U.S. homes. See In re: Chinese-Manufactured Drywall Products Liability Litigation, MDL-2047 (JPML).

The motion for consolidation encompassed ten actions, four actions in the Southern District of Florida, three actions in the Middle District of Florida and one action each in the Northern District of Florida, Eastern District of Louisiana, and Southern District of Ohio. The panel said it was aware of 67 related lawsuits that were pending in federal courts around the country. Those suits and any other related actions will be treated as potential tag-along actions.

The Panel found that all actions share factual questions concerning drywall manufactured in China, imported to and distributed in the United States, and used in the construction of houses; plaintiffs in all actions allege that the drywall emits smelly, corrosive gases. Centralization under Section 1407 will eliminate duplicative discovery, including any discovery on international parties; prevent inconsistent pretrial rulings, particularly those with respect to class certification issues; and conserve the resources of the parties, their counsel and the judiciary, said the Panel.

As is sometimes the case, no district was a clear focal point of this litigation. The common manufacturing defendant and its affiliates are foreign entities without a major presence in any of the suggested transferee districts. Most actions also name local entities, such as builders and suppliers, as defendants. Several parties suggested different districts, and all of the suggested districts, particularly those in the southeastern region, have a nexus to the litigation through allegedly affected houses built with the drywall at issue. On balance, the panel was persuaded that the Eastern District of Louisiana is a preferable transferee forum for this litigation. Centralization in this district permits the Panel to effect the Section 1407 assignment to a judge who has "extensive experience in multidistrict litigation as well as the ability and temperament to steer this complex litigation on a steady and expeditious course." That would be the Honorable Eldon E. Fallon of the Eastern District of Louisiana.

As posted on MassTortDefense before, the lawsuits allege that sulfur compound levels in the drywall are too high, causing issues with air conditioning systems, electrical appliances, internal wiring and other electrical systems in homes. Plaintiffs also allege the drywall produces a rotten egg-like stench and causes a variety of respiratory and other health problems for those who live in the affected homes. The lawsuits filed so far have named Chinese-based manufacturers, as well as importers, developers and builders, contractors, suppliers and others. Companies facing suits include Knauf Gips KG, Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin Co., Taishan Gypsum Co., L&W Supply Corp. and USG Corp. Lennar Corp., a major home builder, has brought in more than 20 manufacturers, suppliers and installers.  Some legislators have been critical of the CPSC's handling of the issue.  And bills have been introduced to ban the product.

Senate Holds Hearing on Chinese Drywall

A variety of public health officials testified last week at a hearing before the Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Insurance Subcommittee of the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, on the issue of allegedly toxic Chinese drywall installed in recently built homes.

Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the EPA, and Florida's Department of Health outlined the plan to study the effects of the drywall in a small number of test homes, to be completed by the end of June, and then expand the studies to a large-scale sample. The CPSC is also working with China's Administration for Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine to find out how the drywall was made and to resolve significant difficulties in tracking the drywall's source.

The testifying officials warned that efforts to mitigate the drywall effects on homeowners shouldn't lead legislators to legislate policy ahead of scientific investigation. For example, Lori Saltzman, division director of the Office of Health Sciences at the CPSC, cautioned senators against legislation rushing to address any drywall issues before the ongoing studies are complete. And another panelist noted that a provision banning imported drywall composed of more than 5 percent organic material in a bill by Sen. Nelson, D-Fla., could shut down virtually all U.S. drywall imports, not just those from China suspected of being toxic.
 

According to allegations of homeowners, certain Chinese-made drywall — imported in the time frame 2005-2007 to meet an uptick in homebuilding demand after Hurricane Katrina — can cause respiratory problems and other health issues, produce a rotten smell, and corrode copper and metal fixtures, leading to fire hazards.

Randy Noel, a representative to the National Association of Home Builders, estimated the cost of replacing the Chinese-made drywall to be as much as $100,000 per home. More than 60 lawsuits have already been filed in seven states over the drywall, without conclusive scientific proof of its toxicity. Noel advocated a stay of the litigation until the CPSC and other agencies have concluded their investigations, identifying the scientific cause of the problems associated with the drywall and establishing a workable remediation strategy. He made the committee aware of a troubling new development in the area of drywall testing: the dramatic increase in the number of companies in the marketplace claiming to have the capability to test someone’s home to determine whether or not they have, or will have, a “toxic drywall” problem.
 

Not everyone has the same notion towards litigation: Saltzman reportedly remarked that the CPSC does not want to jeopardize any potential remedy for homeowners by having inadequate scientific proof to support and advance a possible court case.

 

CPSC Responds To Criticism on China Drywall Investigation

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued a report on the imported drywall situation, noting that nearly 200 consumers from at least 13 States and the District of Columbia have reported health symptoms or certain metal corrosion problems in their homes that may be related to drywall imported from China. (CPSC says it is still investigating the scope of the drywall problem, working to identify the links from foreign manufacturers to the U.S. consumers in consultation with the Chinese government and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.)

The update comes on the heels of criticism by Senator Nelson (D. Fla.) of how quickly the CPSC was moving. The agency, together with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services, is looking at charges of health symptoms or the corrosion of certain metal components in their homes allegedly related to the presence of drywall produced in China. The majority of the reports to the CPSC have come from consumers residing in Florida while others have come from consumers in Louisiana, Virginia, Wisconsin, Ohio, Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri, California, Washington, Wyoming, the District of Columbia, Arizona, and Tennessee. Consumers largely report that their homes were built in 2006 to 2007, when an unprecedented increase in new construction occurred in part due to the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005.

The judicial panel on multidistrict litigation recently agreed to consider consolidating the
more than 30 federal lawsuits filed so far over the drywall.The lawsuits so far name Chinese-based manufacturers, as well as importers, developers and builders, contractors, suppliers and others.

Common features of the reports submitted to the CPSC from homes believed to contain
problem drywall have been:
• “rotten egg” smell within their homes.
• health concerns such as irritated and itchy eyes and skin, difficulty in breathing, persistent cough, bloody noses, runny noses, recurrent headaches, sinus infection, and asthma attacks.
• blackened and corroded metal components in their homes and the frequent replacement of components in air conditioning units.

The federal government is working on an (1) evaluation of the relationship between the drywall and the reported health symptoms; (2) evaluation of the relationship between the drywall and electrical and fire safety issues in the home; and (3) the tracing of the origin and distribution of the drywall. One obvious challenge has been figuring out how much problem drywall there is in any house, given that it is already installed, likely painted and may not be clearly marked.

On the health side, the most frequently reported symptoms are irritated and itchy eyes and skin, difficulty in breathing, persistent cough, bloody noses, runny noses, recurrent headaches, sinus infection, and asthma attacks. Some of these symptoms are similar to colds, allergies or reactions to other pollutants sometimes found in homes. As such, it is difficult to determine if the reported symptoms are related to the drywall and not any other environmental factors or pollutants in the home.

Data being gathered include from in-home air sampling; laboratory elemental characterization studies of domestic and imported drywall; and laboratory chamber studies of domestic and imported drywall to separate and isolate chemical emissions from drywall as opposed to chemicals emitted from other home products (e.g., carpets, cleaners, paint,adhesives, beauty products).

If a house has “problem” drywall, the CPSC is recommending that consumers with health issues consult a physician as soon as possible; those with any of the electrical or fire safety concerns should consult the local gas or electric supplier and a licensed electrician or building inspector as soon as possible. Consumers are cautioned to beware of unqualified testing and remediation services already seeking to o take advantage of consumers struggling to address this issue.

CPSC admits it could be months before it can confidently address the scientific relationships, if any, between the problem drywall and the health and safety concerns raised by consumers.
 

Senator Calls For CPSC Resignation Over China Drywall

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., has sent a letter to the President calling for the resignation of the current head of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, and criticizing the agency for its response to reports of Chinese-made tainted drywall installed in U.S. homes.

In a letter addressed to President Obama earlier this month, the senator targeted the CPSC for failing to do enough, in his view, to halt the import of the drywall. Readers will recall that residents claim this product emits a sulfur smell, poses health risks, and also causes electrical problems.

Nelson asserted that the "agency is doing too little, too late to help residents of Florida and other states who are reporting serious health and safety problems associated with living in homes built with tainted drywall imported from China.”  The CPSC reports that it has launched a formal compliance investigation to determine any risk associated with the sulfur-based gases that may be emitted from the imported drywall

Nelson is also a sponsor of the Drywall Safety Act of 2009, which seeks to impose a recall and a temporary ban on imports until federal drywall safety standards are put in place to protect consumers. The legislation also calls for the CPSC to perform a study with the EPA to determine the level of risk posed by the substances in the drywall.

Products litigation has ensued, including a proposed class action was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida. According to that suit, a shortage of drywall made in the U.S. caused many builders to use imported Chinese drywall during Florida's pre-recession construction boom earlier this decade. There has also been speculation that some of that drywall may have been kept at sea waiting to enter U.S. ports, and was thus exposed to excessive moisture/humidity that caused the alleged fume problems. Such claims are typically inappropriate for class certification because of the individual issues that will be presented by evidence surrounding injury and causation. And at least one U.S. home builder has sued more than two dozen manufacturers, suppliers and installers of drywall imported from China.
 

Bills Introduced to Ban Chinese Drywall

Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., has introduced a bill to temporarily ban drywall with high levels of organic compounds. The bill H.R. 1977 would also commission a study on imported Chinese drywall. Sens. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Mary Landrieu, D-La., introduced the Senate version of the legislation, the Drywall Safety Act of 2009, recently in the U.S. Senate.

Some U.S. residents have complained that the imported Chinese drywall installed in their homes emits a sulfur smell and causes electrical problems. As posted on before, such drywall is now the subject of litigation, after the Florida Department of Health reported it can emit a sulfur smell when exposed to heat and moisture.

The House bill would require the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to create a standard to regulate the composition of drywall. It would also require the commission to work with the National Institute for Standards and Technology and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to study drywall imported from China between 2004 and 2007, and used in U.S. homes. If the bills are passed, such a study on Chinese drywall could be significant in the lawsuits.  The CPSC said in February it had begun an investigation of complaints about Chinese drywall, focusing on whether the sulfur-based gases emitted from the drywall are corroding household wiring and posing a potential safety hazard in that respect. 

Between 60,000 and 100,000 homes across the nation contain tainted drywall, the two sponsoring senators have said. About 36,000 homes in Florida are thought to contain Chinese-made drywall.  According to the allegations of the litigation, a shortage of drywall made in the U.S. caused many builders to use imported Chinese drywall during Florida's construction boom between 2004 and 2006. Much of the drywall was used in construction after Hurricane Katrina. There is speculation that some of that drywall may have been kept at sea for months waiting to enter the U.S., at which point it may have been exposed to humidity that allegedly caused the fume problems.
 

More Made In China Products Liability Litigation

A putative class of Florida homeowners recently filed suit against a company that manufactured drywall in China, alleging the material used in their homes emits sulfur compounds that damaged heating and electrical wiring, and created health risks. See Allen v. Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin, No. 09-CV-54-FtM-99 DNF (M.D. Fla., complaint filed 1/30/09). This is just the latest potentially significant suit arising over products made in China. Plaintiffs allege that defendants manufactured drywall that contained fly ash from Chinese coal-fired power plants, causing the product to emit sulfur compounds that create odor and corrode copper in air conditioning units and wiring in homes. At least one home builder has also brought claims over the drywall issues.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys claim that as much as 10 million square feet of such drywall was used in Florida homes due to shortages of American-made drywall between 2004 and 2006. The complaint asserted causes of action including negligence and negligence per se, strict liability, breach of express and implied warranties, fraudulent misrepresentation, and violation of Florida's deceptive and unfair trade practices act. Defendants dispute the allegations and note that any low levels of sulfur compounds present in the air in homes are not a health risk

Regardless of the merits of the case, and clearly such claims are typically inappropriate for class certification because of the individual issues that will be presented by evidence surrounding injury and causation, there is a growing volume of cases over alleged defects in products made in China. Such litigation can also raise insurance coverage disputes. Coverage litigation has erupted concerning the recent heparin drug contamination allegations, for example. What importers tell their insurers about their source of supply; whether subsidiaries are covered; whether importers here are in de facto joint ventures with Chinese suppliers; and similar questions may be front and center in coverage disputes when this type of products litigation hits. Insurance companies seem to be increasingly playing the card that insureds needed to disclose the details of their manufacturing suppliers. The recent China dairy product scandal may have insurers arguing that product defects are the result of intentional, criminal behavior, rather than negligence.

With the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 seeking to place importers on the hook for defects, U.S. companies may be in the market for more coverage. At the same time, Chinese exporters have not felt the need to buy insurance as they feel judgment-proof in U.S. courts. However, importers may want to consider requiring their suppliers to purchase such insurance as part of the bargaining.