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Judge weighs damages in Chinese drywall case

NEW ORLEANS _ A federal judge heard emotional testimony this week from a group of Virginia homeowners who blame corrosive Chinese drywall for ruining their homes and finances and are seeking more than $2.5 million in damages.

U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon didn't immediately rule on the plaintiffs' bid for a judgment against Chinese drywall manufacturer Taishan Gypsum Co., which hasn't responded to lawsuits and didn't have a lawyer representing the company for a two-day hearing that ended Monday.

Jerry Baldwin, 59, of Williamsburg, Va., said he and his wife, Inez, can't afford to move out of the home they bought in 2006. The couple blames Chinese drywall for ruining appliances, electronics and the home's air conditioning system.

Baldwin said the problem has cost him his financial security and left him worried for his family's health.

"A retirement that looked six years away now looks a lot farther away," he said.

Attorneys for the seven Virginia families said a favorable ruling could benefit hundreds of other plaintiffs whose claims have been consolidated in the New Orleans federal court. But recovering money from Taishan Gypsum could be difficult, since civil judgments in U.S. courts aren't enforced in China.

Plaintiffs lawyers said they will try to seize the company's U.S.-bound vessels and shipments if the company continues to ignore the litigation.

"They're just thumbing their nose at the American judicial system. I don't think they realize what's going to happen to them," said plaintiffs' attorney Daniel Becnel Jr.

Judge Fallon, who said he will rule "as fast as I reasonably can," also heard testimony Monday from engineers who have inspected homes with Chinese drywall and estimated the cost of removing and replacing damaged building materials, appliances and belongings. The testimony was designed to help the judge craft formal guidelines for fixing damaged homes.

Fallon's ruling will be limited to the seven Virginia families, but other plaintiffs are waiting for their day in court. A first trial, which is for a lawsuit a Louisiana family filed against a different Chinese company, is scheduled to start March 15.

The Virginia plaintiffs watched Monday's proceedings from the courtroom's jury box, then took turns sharing their stories.

Lisa Orlando, whose family moved from upstate New York to a new home in Williamsburg, Va., last year, noticed a "baby diaper smell" in the house that she attributed to the previous owners. But the source of the odor wasn't clear until a builder told them about their drywall problem a month after they moved into the house.

Orlando's family has since moved out of the home, but their rent for their new place is higher than their mortgage.

"We're having to start all over again," she said. "We're just happy to be out of our house and hopefully detoxifying."

William Morgan and his wife, Deborah, moved to Williamsburg after he retired from the Norfolk, Va., police department. They quickly realized something was wrong with their "dream house." Fixtures and mirrors turned black. Their lights malfunctioned. Their smoke detector system and water heater failed.

The problems drove them from their house into a rental home, leaving them in a financial mess that forced the couple to file for bankruptcy protection last year.

"We put our money into our home," William Morgan said. "We didn't have a safety net."

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