CAPE CORAL - About 100 residents of Coral Lakes community crammed into a clubhouse Thursday night to learn about the defective drywall that some believe was used to build their homes.
Photos of blackened air conditioning coils that should be copper were projected onto a screen as attorneys representing two firms and a consumer advocacy group outlined symptoms of Chinese manufactured drywall.
“The main focus of tonight is education and to show you the ... real signs if there is a problem in the home,” said attorney David Durkee of Roberts & Durkee, a Coral Gables-based law firm. “Certainly we’re attorneys. Certainly we are trying to represent this community. But if there’s a just action to be had in this world, this is a just action.”
The town hall meeting follows the announcement of a lawsuit filed against Engle Homes in Lee County state court Tuesday alleging the builder used defective drywall imported from China in the Coral Lakes development.
The suit alleges that drywall was made with waste products of coal-fired power plants called fly ash. When combined with moisture in the air, sulfur compounds including sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, creates sulfuric acid, the suit said. Symptoms include corroded copper and other metals affecting air conditioning units and electrical wiring and carries a rotten egg-like smell.
Joyce Dowdy, one of four plaintiffs in the suit, on Wednesday replaced her air conditioning coils for the second time since she moved into her home in 2008. She also believes her bloody noses and insomnia are connected to the gases emanating from her walls.
Thomas Martin, president of Washington, D.C.- based consumer advocacy group America’s Watchdog, began publishing press releases on the issue in January after reading media reports and began directing calls to attorneys.
Martin said his research found shipments of defective drywall entering the United States as early as 2001 and evidence the product made its way to most, if not all, U.S. states and Canada.
“It’s terrifying because my big worry now is the problem we thought was this little problem in Florida is probably coast to coast,” he said.
Residents questioned the attorneys about the process of a lawsuit, whether they would be out of options if a suit failed and how they go forward with the stigma of the issue.
“If we put all our eggs in one basket (and we lose) you’re screwed,” said Donna Sica.
Coral Lakes resident Dowdy replied: “But if you don’t sue, you’re still screwed.”
Beyond physical property damages, residents expressed concerns about the health effects.
Carbon disulfide and carbonyl sulfide, which the suit said is emanating from the walls, can affect the nervous system and is potentially fatal in high doses with side-effects such as headache and sleeplessness in low doses.
Wayne Kreger, attorney with Santa Monica, Calif.-based Milstein, Adelman & Kreger who is working with Durkee, cautioned the residents against jumping to conclusions about health concerns.
“We just don’t know yet,” Kreger said. “There’s no science on this. It’s being developed as we speak.”
The Florida Department of Health does not yet have results from testing but has logged more than 150 complaints from South Florida residents, including dozens from Lee and Collier counties.
Toxicologists hired by Knauf Plasterboard (Tianjin) Co., the Chinese drywall manufacturing company at the heart of the controversy, and Lennar Homes, a Miami-based builder with dozens of affected homes, have said the levels are below federal exposure limits.
Residents have complained of allergy-like symptoms, including headaches, respiratory problems and bloody noses, while in the homes that fade after they leave the home.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission launched an investigation into the problem in January, said spokesman Joe Martyak. It is speaking with homeowners, builders, the Florida Department of Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, although he declined to name companies because it is an ongoing investigation.
The Florida Attorney General’s office is investigating Knauf Tianjin and L&W Supply Corp.
“We’ve had reports of problems with the materials and we are investigating to determine whether any deceptive practices may have occurred in sales or marketing,” said Sandi Copes, Communications Director, Office of the Attorney General.
Durkee intends to file a series of local suits on behalf of individual communities rather than participate in national class action suits.
He suspects about 200 homes in Coral Lakes community could fall under the lawsuit.
There is also a chance the courts will roll all legal actions relating to the defective drywall into one suit, he said, but homeowners would have the chance to opt out and pursue their own legal action.
Engle has also been named as a defendant in a class-action suit filed earlier this month in federal court, along with builders Taylor Woodrow and South Kendal Construction, Banner Supply and Knauf Gips, a German conglomerate and its affiliate Knauf Tianjin.
Engle Homes’ properties are in Florida, Colorado, Nevada and Arizona.
“Upon learning about this issue we took immediate action to investigate and continue to do so,” TOUSA, Engle’s parent company, said in a statement.
“Our initial findings tell us that this seems to be an isolated incident that has affected a small number of Engle homes in the Fort Myers, Florida, area and we are currently developing a plan to assist our affected homeowners.”
In related news, the Chinese drywall manufacturing company in a storm of controversy over alleged defects was dropped from a state class-action lawsuit Tuesday. The original suit had been filed in Miami-Dade County circuit court Feb. 3.
Plaintiffs Jason and Melissa Harrell had sued Knauf Tianjin, one of five defendants, saying their $360,000 home in Palm Isle Estates in Homestead was built with faulty drywall. Importer Rothchilt International was also dropped as a defendant.
The two companies will instead be sued in a federal case to be filed in coming days, said attorney Victor Diaz of Podhurst Orseck, one of three firms representing the plaintiffs.
“There’s a lot of litigation already filed against Knauf in federal court,” Diaz said.
“I think we would have ended up in federal court anyway so we made the decision to not waste a lot of time in procedural maneuvering.”
Knauf Tianjin has said it is being singled out because it is one of the only Chinese manufacturers to stamp its product with the company name.
“Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin Co. Ltd (KPT) has taken the complaints being made by Florida homeowners very seriously and has been very aggressively working toward reaching a solution that alleviates all of the concerns of the affected homeowners,” the company said in a statement.
It added the company constituted 20 percent of the Chinese board imported in the United States.
The amended suit, whose remaining defendants are South Kendall Construction Corp., Palm Isles Holdings, Key Gates Realty and Banner Supply Co., now includes three complaints down from the original eight.
It alleges product liability, negligence and breach of implied warranty of habitability – an understanding that the home was free of defects.
The lawsuit maintains the drywall emits toxins including sulfur and sulfur-based gases, including carbon disulfide, carbonyl sulfide and hydrogen sulfide.
It cited damage to the home, such as corroding plumping and electrical wiring, and said the rotten egg-like odor made the home uninhabitable.