Drywall Woes Continue—Seeking Redress in Court Could Provide Little Relief
Homeowners affected by problems with defective drywall have been forced to fend for themselves and many have turned to the courts for help. Thousands of lawsuits have been consolidated and are being tried in federal court. But the homeowners’ chances of getting quick relief through private litigation are slim.
This past year, we teamed up with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune to produce a series of almost 20 stories about defective drywall that can release enough sulfur gasses to trigger respiratory problems and cause electric appliances like refrigerators and air conditioners to fail. Many of the families whose homes were built with the defective drywall say they've been financially devastated by the problem, since repairing a home with tainted drywall can cost $100,000 or more.
Most of the drywall was produced by manufacturers based in China, but almost 100 homeowners are alleging that some American-made drywall is causing similar problems.
So far, more than 3,700 people have complained to the Consumer Product Safety Commission about defective drywall. But public records gathered by the two news organizations show that nearly twice as many homes have been affected. You can see where many of these homes are located by using our news application.
As part of that story, we reported that the government's two-year probe into the Chinese drywall problem, led by the CPSC, was hamstrung by two factors. Federal agencies lack the authority to force foreign companies to recall defective products, reimburse people for problems those products may cause or even provide basic information about how the products were made. And no single federal agency is officially responsible for regulating residential indoor air quality or determining how it is affected by building products.
Due in large part to these gaps, homeowners have been forced to fend for themselves and many have turned to the courts for help. Thousands of lawsuits have been consolidated and are being tried now in New Orleans federal court.
But the homeowners' chances of getting quick relief through private litigation are slim. So far, only one of the companies responsible for producing the defective drywall has participated in the federal court proceedings. That company, Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin, has teamed up with several insurers and a drywall supplier, Interior Exterior Building Supply, to participate in a pilot program to remove the drywall and wiring from 300 homes built with Knauf board.
The other manufacturers, many of whom are at least partially owned by the Chinese government, don't appear inclined to follow Knauf's lead.
Attorneys for Taishan Gypsum Co., Ltd. told Judge Eldon E. Fallon, who is presiding over the litigation in New Orleans, that company officials "absolutely do not understand why their high-quality drywall allegedly emitted excessive amounts of hydrogen sulfide," Joe Cyr, the company's attorney said. "We're not right behind Knauf in any kind of settlement negotiations."
In August, Lowe's Companies Inc. negotiated a quiet deal in a separate lawsuit that provided big payouts to a handful of plaintiff's attorneys and relatively small amounts to homeowners. Two months after we reported on the settlement, however, Lowe's dramatically increased the amount of money it will offer customers whose health or homes were harmed by defective drywall they bought from its stores. Those customers are now eligible for up to $100,000 in cash, instead of the maximum $4,500 in cash and gift cards that was agreed upon in the previous settlement.
Foul air from Chinese-made drywall has created a nightmare for thousands of homeowners.
The Story So Far
ProPublica and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune began examining in May 2010 what was—or wasn’t—being done to help people whose homes had been built with contaminated drywall. The problematic drywall, much of it imported from China, emitted foul odors and frequently caused mysterious failures of new appliances and electronics. Worse yet, some residents complained of serious respiratory problems, bloody noses, and migraines.