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Toxic Drywall

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Retaining a lawyer is the first course of action for homeowners who have tainted wallboardFor homeowners who rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina, it may be the ultimate nightmare. Imagine that you finally got back into your home after battling FEMA, your insurance company, Road Home and the endless reconstruction process. You settled in, replaced your furniture and everything else that makes a home, only to discover that the walls inside the house are toxic.

That is the scenario facing thousands of homeowners who unknowingly had tainted drywall installed in their homes during the recent frenzy of hurricane reconstruction. The toxic drywall was imported from China and contains high levels of sulfur compounds, strontium and other chemicals that corrode copper wiring, emit a noxious odor and have the potential to cause health problems.

The issue is a legal quagmire for homeowners, and it is hard to determine who is liable for the damages caused by tainted materials. Local attorney Frank D’Amico Jr. is representing several clients with the problem. He says the first thing any homeowner should do is check their wallboard in the attic to see if it is made in China. The problem has been traced to drywall made by Tieshan Gipsum and other subsidiaries. Some drywall was made by Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin Co. Ltd., an affiliate of Germany-based manufacturer Knauf Gips KG.

Aside from checking the label to see if the wallboard was made in China, you can also tell by the smell. “If your home smells like rotten eggs or ammonia, then you probably have something going on. The level of odor will vary greatly with each home,” D’Amico says.

You can also check behind an electrical receptacle plate to see if any of the exposed copper in the wiring is discolored. “That is probably the quickest and easiest way to look. If the drywall is contaminated, it will cause the copper wiring to turn black,” he says.

Surprisingly, many homeowners do not know they have the problem. At least 550 million pounds of Chinese drywall entered the United States since 2006 and import records show the drywall came into the country between 2001 and 2007. Only a few thousand homeowners have reported the problem, which has left legal experts puzzled as to why more have not come forward.

“We know the volume of dry board that has been imported. There should be a lot more claimants. It is a combination of two factors. First, the people do not realize they have contaminated wallboard because they have not looked at their wiring or checked their air conditioning systems,” he says. The second assumption is that people are ignoring the problem because they cannot afford to rip everything out and renovate again.

D’Amico says that most homeowners’ policies have exclusions for construction defects, toxic waste or faulty materials. Homeowners have little recourse against the manufacturer as it is a foreign company in a communist country.

Tieshan has refused to cooperate in the legal actions against it, and it is unlikely that the United States legal system will be able to enforce any claims against it.

Another option is to try to sue the contractor who installed the material. However, many used flyby- night companies that came in during the post-Katrina construction boom. If a local or established company did the work, many did not have enough insurance to cover the volume of claims.

“Most contractors were not KB Homes. They were small business operators, who maybe had a million dollars worth of coverage and may have done 50 to 100 homes,” D’Amico says. “When you have 50 to 100 consumers suing on a single policy, it does not take long for that policy to be eroded.”

So, what are a homeowner’s legal options? First, they can document the issue. You can photograph the problem areas and even contact a law firm who can order tests of drywall samples to prove they are contaminated. “You need to preserve the evidence. Part of the problem is the clients who have contacted us regarding Chinese drywall had their houses gutted. They did not save the materials,” he says.

You may wonder if you should file a claim and if so, against whom? That answer depends on who made the drywall. If it is from Knauf, you may be able to join the class action lawsuit against the company, which is under the United States legal system. It is estimated that approximately 20 to 25 percent of the tainted drywall was manufactured by Knauf, D’Amico says.

“If you have one of the other Chinese brands, then you are probably looking at an individual action against the contractor and/or your homeowners insurance. This means that you are going to have to hire a lawyer in either case,” D’Amico says. “You need to come to a lawyer and see what your rights are.”

D’Amico advises clients who have the resources to remove the drywall and preserve samples.

Homeowners are responsible for mitigating further damages to the electrical system in their homes. Also, he says consumers should always check to make sure their contractors are using quality materials. “The ‘Made in America’ label has new significance,” he says.

D’Amico founded the Law Offices of Frank D’Amico Jr. in 1986. The plaintiffs litigation practice has offices in Covington, New Orleans and Baton Rouge. D’Amico is a graduate of Loyola University and a lifelong resident of New Orleans.