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10 Chinese drywall lawsuits combined, sent to New Orleans

MANATEE — A Lakewood Ranch homeowner’s lawsuit over Chinese drywall and nine other similar class-action lawsuits filed elsewhere will be consolidated into one case in Louisiana, a panel of federal judges ruled Monday.

The U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation said the 10 drywall cases, including Kristin Culliton’s, will be handled and tried in New Orleans. The seven-member panel also appointed U.S. District Judge Eldon E. Fallon to preside over the consolidated case.

In doing so, the panel rejected requests to docket the consolidated case in Florida, the state where the drywall issue first surfaced and most homeowner complaints have originated. Attorneys from Louisiana and Ohio also had sought to have the case assigned to federal court districts within those states.

But the panel said Fallon’s experience in complex product-liability cases was the deciding factor.

“On balance, we are persuaded that the Eastern District of Louisiana is a preferable transferee forum for this litigation,” the panel’s three-page order said. “Centralization in this district permits the panel to effect the Section 1407 assignment to a judge who has extensive experience in multidistrict litigation as well as the ability and temperament to steer this complex litigation on a steady and expeditious course.”

Fallon, who has been on the federal bench since 1995, most recently presided over class-action lawsuits involving the drugs Propulsid and Vioxx.

Homeowners in Florida and several other states have sued over Chinese drywall in their recently built homes, saying it emits a bad smell, corrodes metal wiring and piping, and causes headaches, difficulty breathing and other health problems.

The panel’s decision, which came more than two weeks after it heard oral arguments in Louisville, Ky., consolidates eight Chinese drywall cases in Florida and one each in Louisiana and Ohio. At least another 67 similar cases also could be folded into the consolidated case.

Among the Florida cases is Culliton’s lawsuit against Taylor Morrison Services Inc., Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin Co. Ltd. and several other companies. Culliton’s suit contends Taylor Morrison built her Greenbrook Terrace house with tainted drywall manufactured by Knauf, forcing her to move out for health reasons.

Culliton and one of her attorneys, Chris Casper, attended the Kentucky hearing and lobbied the panel to put the consolidated case in Miami or Tampa. Taylor Morrison opposed combining the case with others, but said it preferred Tampa if the cases were consolidated, according to the panel’s order.

Darren Inverso, another of Culliton’s attorneys, said the choice of New Orleans was no surprise.

“We’re OK with it,” Inverso said. “The judge apparently is very experienced and knowledgeable. ... It’s federal law here and federal law in New Orleans. It’s the same law, the same requirements.”

The next step is for Fallon and attorneys involved in the consolidated cases to define plaintiff classes and select a lead counsel, Inverso said. He said he hopes that’s accomplished within two months.

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

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