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.