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Analyzing Choices Before All Parties Related to Chinese Drywall Claims

Published on May 15, 2009 by Scott Wolfe Jr

Wolfe Law Group’s general construction law blog, the Construction Law Monitor, published three articles over the past two weeks that analyzed the choices faced by builders, homeowners and construction attorneys involved with Chinese Drywall claims.

The three-part series of articles provides these parties with a useful discussion of the decisions that must be confronted as each deal with damages sustained by the installation and supply of tainted drywall.

The article series can be found under the Chinese Drywall Tag on the blog.   Or by clicking on one of the following links, whereby each article is briefly discussed.

This article discusses issues related to making insurance claims, remedying the drywall problem within homes, the duty to mitigate damages and options available to the builder in litigation.

Construction Attorneys
This article discusses the role of class action suits in the imported drywall crisis, warranties and the role of builders in the suits, and how the duty to mitigate damages affects all parties.

This article discusses the choices facing homeowners who have tainted drywall in their homes.   It examines the pros and cons of class action suits, individual litigation, and making insurance claims….as well as the ultimate unfortunate job that homeowner might be forced to take:  fixing the drywall out of their own pocket (at least for now).

Louisana Has 2nd Most Chinese Drywall, But Washington on the Map

Published on May 14, 2009 by Scott Wolfe Jr

This blog is published by Wolfe Law Group, a construction law practice with offices in Seattle, WA and New Orleans, LA.

Thus far, the blog has focused a great deal on Louisiana news and law related to Chinese Drywall - and the reason is simple:  The amount of imported Chinese Drywall in Louisiana is second only to Florida.

Further, Chinese Drywall was by and large imported into Gulf Coast states like Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and Texas.

While the state of Washington is clearly worlds apart from the Gulf Coast region…it’s not out of the woods insofar as Chinese Drywall in concerned.  In fact, its among the 12 U.S. states who have imported at least 1 million pounds of tainted drywall from China since January 1, 2006.

A helpful graphic based on data published by the Herald Tribune shows that Washington has imported 2,437,491 pounds of Chinese Drywall since January 1 2006, which is enough to build approximately 270 homes.

As lawsuits gather stem in Florida and Louisiana, and across the Gulf Coast, Washington contractors and suppliers ought to remain viligent and cautious of Chinese Drywall claims.

Have questions about what to do if you installed or supplied tainted drywall?  We wrote an Avvo Legal Guide on the topic here…and you can always contact Wolfe Law Group.

Factors to Consider When Faced With Chinese Drywall Claim

Published on May 13, 2009 by Scott Wolfe Jr

We authored a legal guide on about what Builders & Suppliers should do If They Have Installed or Supplied Chinese Drywall.

The folks at Coastal Contractor magazine highlighted another such “guide” from attorneys at Wood Smith Hening & Berman, LLP.    The useful guide is titled “Chinese Drywall Personal Injury Claims: Lessons from Prior Mass Torts.”

While our discussion focused on practical choices facing builders and suppliers who should move quickly to mitigate their damages, involve insurance and retain counsel….this guide focuses on the mass tort aspect of the Chinese Drywall claims.

A tort - for the non-lawyer readers - a body of law that addresses, and provides remedies for, civil wrongs not arising out of contractual obligations.  Usually, they are commonly referred to as “personal injury” damages.

As the authors in the Mass Torts guide discuss, the Chinese Drywall claims are interesting in that they present construction defect claims & tort claims.    The authors suggest that builders, suppliers and other effected parties should learn from prior mass tort cases in preparing their defenses.

The thesis is good, and useful for both construction attorneys and construction industry participants faced with these claims.  It ties in to previous discussions here at the Chinese Drywall Blog about whether Class Actions are a right fit for drywall claims and about builder exposure in the claims.

Another Lawsuit. Another Builder.

Published on April 30, 2009 by Scott Wolfe Jr

Centerline Homes (@FLNewHomes) - a Florida “Neighborhood Home Builder” is the latest contractor to face litigation related to Chinese Drywall.

The suit was filed as a class action, but is unlike other class actions in that it seeks recovery from the builder.

In a comment made to the press, Centerline Homes seems to feel a bit jaded by the Chinese Drywall situation in Floriday, blaming “plaintiff attorneys and the media” for fueling a “hysteria” over Chinese Drywall.

The lawsuit against Centerline Homes will likely be among the 10-15 class action suits set for hearing on May 27th before a U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation.  According to the TC Palm, the suit requests the following from builders:

  • Replace all Chinese Drywall, as well as all wiring, pipes, building materials, furniture, appliances and household items ‘affected by sulfur emissions’;
  • Have houses tested to make sure they are “sulfur free;”
  • Pay homeowners for the loss in the value of their home;
  • Give homeowners a lifetime, transferable warrantee on the homes;
  • Compensate residents for all current and future health problems resulting from the emissions.

Clearly, tall orders for any builder, and cause for concern for any builders, installers or suppliers out there who supplied or installed Chinese Drywall.

Concerned and wondering what to do?  Check out this how-to here.

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Homeowner Sues Their Homeowners Insurer for Chinese Drywall Defects

Published on April 29, 2009 by Scott Wolfe Jr

On the Chinese Drywall Blog, we’ve talked about class action suits, individual suits against builders and suppliers, suits by builders against its suppliers, and other similar actions.

However, in Florida, one couple seeks to hold another party liable for their Chinese Drywall damages:  their own homeowners insurer.

The claim makes a great deal of sense, and it adds to the mystery of who will eventually be responsible for the Chinese Drywall damages.

The suit was brought in a Florida U.S. District Court, and is captioned Baker v. American Home Assurance Company, Inc., Middle District of Florida, No. 09-cv-188-FtM-99DNF.  (read here)

According to the complaint, the homeowners made a claim in December 2008 related to damages caused by Chinese Drywall.  The complaint describes the cause of the damage as coming from “drywall…emitting gases which have damaged the Subject Property and the contents therein.”

After inspection and testing, the insurer denied the claim for “contamination.”     The Baker complaint argues that the damages were not caused by “contaminants” as defined by the policy.

The policy at the center of the Baker action defines “contaminates” as follows:

An impurity resulting from the mixture of or contact with a foreign substance.

According to the complaint, there was not ‘mixture or contact with a foreign substantance,’ and therefore, the pollution exclusion would not apply.

The Baker exclusion is far less detailed then some of the other pollution exclusions found in Commercial General Liability policies…and therefore, may be interpreted differently.

If pollution exclusions in homeowners policies are generally less complex than GCL policies, it may be prudent for homeowners to make timely claims against their homeowner policies if they are faced with Chinese Drywall damages.

It’s too early to predict exactly who will be responsible for damages associated with Chinese Drywall, especially since so many parties are involved.   To rely simply on one remedy (i.e. a class action) is probably an irresponsible choice for homeowners faced with significant damages.

We’re likely to see a flood of suits in the coming months against builders, home insurers, suppliers and other responsible parties.   Home insurance policies will likely file subrogation claims against builders, suppliers and other parties as well.

We’ll monitor the Baker suit as it proceeds.  Stay tuned.

Pollution Exclusion at Center of 5th Circuit Decision this Week

Published on April 28, 2009 by Scott Wolfe Jr

On April 22, 2009, the U.S. Fifth Circuit released an opinion in Nautilus Insurance Company v. Country Oaks Apartments, Ltd. that may bear some significant on the question of whether contractor GL insurance policies will cover Chinese Drywall claims.

Explaining The Suit

The suit required the appeals court to address the scope of the absolution pollution exclusion under Texas law.

The facts of the case are disturbing:  Suit was filed against a Commercial General Liability carrier for an apartment complex, where the Plaintiff lived.   During the policy period, works accidentally blocked the vent to the furnace in several apartments, exposing the plaintiff to carbon monoxide that would have otherwise been released outside.   The exposure affected the plaintiff’s pregnancy, and her child was born with difficulties.

The insurance company refused to pay the claim, contenting that the damage was caused by pollution and excluded under the policy’s absolute pollution exclusion.

That policy’s exclusion clause read as follows:

f. Pollution
(1) “Bodily injury” or “property damage” which would not have occurred in whole or in part but for the actual, alleged, or threatened discharge, dispersal, seepage, migration, release, or escape of “pollutants” at any time.

The term “pollutant” was described as “any solid, liquid, gaseous or thermal irritant or contaminant, including smoke, vapor, soot, fumes, acids, alkalis, chemicals and waste. Waste includes material to be recycled, reconditioned or reclaimed.”

Under Texas law, the US 5th Circuit held that the pollution exclusion did apply to this loss, and that there was no insurance coverage under the policy for plaintiff’s claim.   The court summarized its holding as follows:

In sum, the emission of carbon monoxide from a furnace into an apartment unambiguously satisfies the pollution exclusion’s requirement of a “discharge, dispersal, seepage, migration, release, or escape.” It is irrelevant that a reasonable insured might not expect this result, or that, given sufficient imagination, we can think of ways - not presented here - in which enforcement of this exclusion would lead to absurd results. See Forbau v. Aetna Life Ins. Co., 876 S.W.2d 132, 134 (Tex. 1994) (on rehearing, vacating its prior opinion) (”[N]either conflicting expectations nor disputation is sufficient to create an ambiguity.”

How Country Oaks Decision Applies to Chinese Drywall Claims

Many commentators (see here, here, and here) monitoring the Chinese Drywall situation predict that insurance claims related to the loss will be denied by insurers based on the absolute pollution exclusion.

From a review of the Country Oaks case just released by the 5th Circuit, if property damage and bodily injury is caused by a “pollutant” from the Chinese Drywall…it seems likely that homeowners, builders and insurers will be in for a spicy legal argument over whether the exclusion does or does not apply.

However, how the Country Oak decision and reasoning applies to Chinese Drywall claims will depend largely on (a) Where the damage is incurred and claim is made; and (b) What exactly is causes the damages.

First, the Country Oak decision examines the absolute pollution exclusion under Texas law only (although it does comment on Mississippi law).   Under Texas interpretations of insurance contracts, the absolute pollution exclusion is given broad applicability, and therefore, the exclusion will more likely apply in Texas than in states with a stricter review of insurance exclusions and policies.

States, for example, like Louisiana.  As we reviewed just last week, Louisiana courts have taken a completely different approach from Texas to interpreting pollution exclusions.

According to Louisiana case law, since the pollution exclusion was drafted to apply to “environmental contaminants,” Louisiana courts have limited its applicability to such.   Read our in-depth analysis of Louisiana case law on pollution exclusions here.

The second factor that will determine the applicability of Country Oak is more scientific, relating to the actual cause of the damage.

Although most everyone involved with this crisis can recognize the symptoms of Chinese Drywall…we don’t yet have a definite cause.   Once science catches up in this area, the cause of the damages will be important in determining whether the pollution exclusion applies.     The more like a “pollutant” the cause - the more likely insurers will cite pollution exclusions.

Builders Starting To Tango with Chinese Drywall Claims

Published on April 27, 2009 by Scott Wolfe Jr

As the Chinese Drywall crisis unfolded over the last few months, news reports were abound of class action litigation against large drywall manufacturers, but it appeared that builders were getting a “free pass” on liability.

Unfortunately, but inevitably, it appears the tide is changing.

Recently, the shoe dropped for Lennar Co., who was arguably the most predominate home building company facing Chinese Drywall claims.  While Lennar Co. made every attempt to thwart litigation, suit was formally filed against them just last week, and they are now preparing a defense and examining applicable exclusions in their insurance policies.

However, large building outfits like Lennar Co. or South Kendall Construction Corp. are no longer alone as builder-defendants in Chinese Drywall claims.

Here are some examples from across the affected areas.

Flannigan v. Stafford Custom Homes, Inc.

Last week, a news station in North Carolina reported that a couple with Chinese Drywall had filed suit against their local builder:  Stafford Custom Homes, Inc.

The plaintiff’s counsel in that case, Joel R. Rhine of Lea Rhine Rosbrugh & Chleborowicz was kind enough to share a copy of that complaint with the Chinese Drywall Blog, and its available to read here.

The complaint asserts the following claims against the homebuilder…and importantly, the homebuilder alone:

  • Breach of Contract;
  • Breach of Implied Warranties;
  • Breach of Express Warranties;
  • Negligence;
  • Negligent Misrepresentation;
  • Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices

As mentioned, the suit against Stafford Custom Homes, Inc. is between the homeowner and the homebuilder only, and the plaintiffs did not bring suit against the subcontractor installer, the drywall supplier or the drywall manufacturer.

It will be interesting to watch this action progress, and especially to see how Stafford Custom Homes, Inc. defends itself in the case.   Likely, a claim will be made against Stafford’s General Liability insurance policy, and an argument will ensue about the applicability of the pollution exclusion clause.

Further, the builder will be well-served to take a page out of the Lennar Co. defense book, and file suit against its supplier, installer and the drywall manufacturer.

The case is in Wake Count, North Carolina, and is captioned Flannigan v. Stafford Custom Homes, Inc., General Court of Justice Superior Court Division, No. 09CV006759.

We’ll monitor this case as it moves forward.

Pronto v. Venture Supply, LLC, et al.

In Virginia, another couple has brought a claim against their contractor individually, as opposed to a class action, suit.  While the news report breaking the story doesn’t mention the contractors name, the couple also brought suit against Venture Supply, L.L.C., who is the purported supplier of the drywall.

Like Stafford Custom Homes, Venture Supply, L.L.C. is a self-proclaimed “locally owned” company.

The couple in this suit - Benjamin and Holly Pronto - are seeking more than $600,000 in damages associated with the Chinese Drywall contamination.

The estimate of damages by the Prontos is a haunting wake-up call to builders who have unknown exposure to Chinese Drywall claims.

Builders Mutual Insurance Company v. The Dragas Co.

This is another case out of Virgina, but unique in that here an insurance company has sued its insured.

The insured, The Dragas Co., is a Virginia builder who has installed Chinese Drywall in Virginia homes.

According to the report in The Virginian-Pilot, Dragas’ insurance company has denied coverage for Chinese Drywall damages, and has filed suit in federal court asking a federal judge to declare who is responsible for the drywall damages.

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