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.