Law firms lining up to attract drywall clients

dmarsteller@bradenton.comMarch 29, 2009 

MANATEE — “Have you noticed an odor that is similar to rotten eggs in your new home?” the ad on Craigslist begins.

It then asks if the home’s wiring or piping has had to be replaced frequently, or if air-conditioning systems have needed repeated repairs. The posting also inquires if homeowners and their visitors have experienced eye irritation, breathing difficulties, nose bleeds or headaches that disappear after leaving the home.

If the answer to any of those questions is yes, then “our lawyers are available to immediately assist you in your defective Chinese drywall lawsuit,” beckons the ad by Richard J. Serpe, a lawyer in Norfolk, Va.

He’s not alone. Like asbestos, Fen-Phen, tobacco and other allegedly defective or dangerous products in the past, Chinese drywall is attracting strong interest among law firms seeking to profit from the unfolding issue.

At least 30 law groups from Florida to California, many specializing in personal injury and product-liability cases, have either filed lawsuits or are recruiting plaintiffs to sue over allegedly defective Chinese-made drywall. Some firms are taking a different tack, seeking to represent defendants against potential drywall-related claims.

Why are law firms jumping into the drywall issue? For the potential prestige and financial payoff from handling a successful class-action product-liability case, lawyers say.

“This could be a $100 million case, and they could get 35 percent” of any settlement or judgment if they’re the lead attorney, said Darren Inverso of Norton, Hammersley, Lopez & Skokos, P.A. in Sarasota. His firm was initially contacted by a Lakewood Ranch homeowner and has since filed a class-action suit on her behalf.

“That’s the financial aspect as to why they’re looking for plaintiffs,” he said. “It’s also professional advancement. If you’re lead counsel on a class-action case that’s successful, that’s an advantage.”

Most of those firms seeking drywall cases are based or have offices in Florida, which has become the issue’s epicenter. But it also has drawn attention from lawyers in California, Pennsylvania and Ohio, areas where the presence of allegedly defective Chinese drywall hasn’t even been established.

Most of those firms have set up Web sites — such as www.thechinesedrywalllawyer.com — to recruit potential clients. And some firms have been more aggressive.

Michael Foreman of Foreman & Associates, a Sarasota construction consulting firm, estimates he’s been approached by at least 50 law firms since his company began testing Southwest Florida homes last year for tainted Chinese drywall.

“Most of the time I just tell them we’re not interested,” said Foreman, who has aligned himself with the “Chinese Drywall Legal Consortium,” a partnership of law firms in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

While most law firms are soliciting homeowners, some are seeking to represent the other side.

Carlton Fields in Tampa has set up a “Chinese Drywall Team” to potentially defend manufacturers, suppliers and builders against possible drywall claims. The Wolfe Law Group in New Orleans recently added a new practice group to represent and advise contractors and suppliers involved in the drywall issue. And Troutman Sanders, an international law firm with 15 North American offices, is advertising its availability to represent defendants.

The legal jockeying comes amid various federal and state investigations into the scope and magnitude of the problematic drywall. Florida health officials are conducting tests for possible health problems, and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recently sent a team of engineers and scientists to visit several homes in Manatee and Sarasota counties.

But it’s the potential national impact that has most law firms interested.

Drywall imports from China surged in 2006, when there wasn’t enough American-made drywall available to keep up with a building boom.

Shipping records show 495 million pounds of Chinese-made drywall were imported to the United States that year, mostly through Florida but also through New York, Houston, Los Angeles and New Orleans, and sent to various cities such as Chicago and Seattle.

More than 50,000 U.S. homes potentially could have Chinese drywall in them, according to estimates.

Florida homeowners have filed at least four class-action cases thus far; another has hit the courts in Louisiana and one is in the works in Virginia.

Two homebuilders, Miami-based Lennar Corp. and Alabama-based Mitchell Co., also have sued drywall manufacturers and suppliers.

Inverso said it’s likely the various homeowner suits will be consolidated into one case. A Palm Beach Gardens law firm that filed one suit has asked the Federal Multi-District Litigation Panel to do just that.

The panel, made of various federal judges, will determine in which federal judicial district the consolidated case will be heard and assign a judge to oversee the case. Inverso said he believes it will ultimately land in U.S. Court in Miami.

The judge overseeing the case will determine who the lead plaintiff or plaintiffs will be, and who will be the lead plaintiff attorney — a decision that determines who potentially gets paid millions of dollars in legal fees.

And that is why law firms are circling over drywall, Foreman said.

“They’re jockeying for top dog,” he said. “They’re trying to get a piece of the action based on the number of people they bring to the table, so they’re busy recruiting.”

Duane Marsteller, transportation/growth and development reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7080, ext. 2630.

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