Attack of the Chinese Drywall

Homeowners look for someone to blame for the material that's wrecking houses.

Lennar also filed a lawsuit in January against 25 companies accused of making, importing, and distributing Chinese drywall. Among them is Miami-based Banner Supply Co., which is accused of distributing a majority of the Chinese drywall in South Florida. Banner Supply owner Jack Landers declined to comment. "We're still in litigation and still investigating the matter," Landers said from his home in Fort Lauderdale.

Homeowners have also begun filing suit, and attorneys across the nation want the federal court system to set up a class-action lawsuit against developers and suppliers. Among the lawsuits is one filed March 23 by four Miami homeowners against Lennar and its drywall suppliers. The suit claims the drywall creates "noxious, rotten egg-like odors," causes damage and corrosion to the home, and has "dangerous health consequences" including respiratory and sinus problems.

Don Russo, the Miami attorney who filed the suit, has joined the calls to have state and federal health officials study Chinese drywall. Such research could help homeowners prove problems stem from their defective walls.

Jennifer Schnee and Lawrence Riesz worry about the health of their three children.
C. Stiles
Jennifer Schnee and Lawrence Riesz worry about the health of their three children.

Government studies could also help figure out if builders such as Lennar and suppliers including Banner knew in advance that Chinese drywall was defective. That's not a conclusion that's likely to come out of the lawsuits. If it turns out Lennar and others knew the drywall was defective, insurance companies would deem it fraud and no longer cover the loss. So attorneys suing the developers and suppliers will avoid asking questions.

Indeed, Russo acknowledges it's not something he'll ask in his suit against Lennar and the suppliers. But he says he doesn't believe the companies installed it knowing it would lead to these problems. "They may have had an idea that it corrodes metal, but I doubt they knew the full extent of it," Russo says. However, he acknowledges the suppliers must have known something was wrong. "There's no way, especially in a warehouse full of it, that they couldn't know. You would think that evidence would be there."

Lennar was perhaps the first builder to offer to fix homes with Chinese drywall, but the deal comes with a catch. The company, among the nation's largest homebuilders, requires homeowners to sign a six-page agreement, obtained by New Times, promising that the homeowners will be put up in comparable housing while costly repairs are finished. However, in exchange, homeowners must promise they won't sue, even if later they develop long-term health problems.

Things are worse for homeowners who bought WCI houses. With the company in bankruptcy, WCI has no money for homeowners to go after. Entire WCI communities, such as Parkland Estates and Banyan Isles, might end up with hundreds of homeowners simply walking away from their sick houses.

Riesz and Schnee recently withdrew their suit against WCI, knowing it's impossible to get money from a company that doesn't have any. They're continuing the lawsuit against Chinese drywall manufacturer Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin. But they know it'll be difficult to get a foreign company to pay for repairs.

Meanwhile, they're trying to figure out how long to stick it out in the 5,000-square-foot home they bought for $1.5 million just two years ago. They recently had to replace the air conditioner, but more important is whether what's causing the corrosion is making the family sick.

Schnee actually went into labor the night Reisz told her about finding the Chinese drywall. Now she's worried about whether her home is hurting her 2-month-old.

"I could live with the expense of replacing the appliances. I could live with the odor we get in here sometimes," Schnee says. "I could live with all those things. But not if I know it harms my kids."

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