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Drywall lawsuit: repairs or overhaul

NEW ORLEANS — Plaintiffs in what could be a precedent-setting court battle over the damage done by Chinese drywall told a judge Monday that a Louisiana home tainted by the sulfur-emitting substance would need a complete overhaul.

However, the defendant, a Chinese wallboard company, said simply removing the drywall and making selective repairs would suffice. U.S. District Judge Eldon E. Fallon heard the arguments about the defective Chinese-made drywall, which was imported en masse during the housing boom and after devastating hurricanes in 2005.

The drywall has been linked to corrosion in homes and possibly health effects. About 3,000 homeowners, most of them in Florida, Virginia, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, have reported problems with the Chinese-made drywall. The Consumer Product Safety Commission is conducting an in-depth probe into the contaminated material.

There is no jury in this case, which deals with the claims of the Hernandez family of Louisiana. But the outcome of this trial, and other bellwether trials Fallon is handling, could serve as guidance for about 2,100 similar claims.

Fallon is expected to rule on what action should be taken to make the Hernandez home livable and whether the family is entitled to new appliances, electronics and other items that may have been damaged by corrosion. Claims over health problems are not being heard at this trial.

In this case, drywall manufacturer Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin Co. is arguing that the Hernandez home can be restored for about $54,000. The plaintiffs argue that cost is closer to $211,000.

The difference lies in the extent of what the two sides believe needs to be removed.

Both sides agree the drywall needs to be taken out. Knauf also has agreed to remove granite countertops, some electrical and plumbing parts, insulation and molding.

The plaintiffs say the home’s wiring, appliances, and heating and air conditioning unit should be removed, too.

However, Knauf lawyer Don Hayden told Fallon the drywall had not ruined the home.

“This is not where we have to go in in big white space suits,” he said. “This is a typical construction job.”

The home could be fixed in three months, and there would be no lingering problems once the drywall was removed, Hayden said.

Dean Rutila, an engineer and remediation expert with Simpson Gumpertz & Heger, testified for the plaintiffs that corroded pipes, wiring and other materials could get worse over time if the house is not gutted. He said the materials and appliances should be replaced.

Tatum and Charlene Hernandez built their home in Mandeville in 2006. It was appraised shortly before the Chinese drywall was discovered at about $238,000, their lawyer said. The drywall has left the air conditioner and other appliances inoperable and caused Charlene Hernandez to have headaches, the family said.

The Hernandez case is not the first trial over Chinese drywall Fallon has heard. Last month, he heard a test case involving Virginia families. But in that trial the defendant, Taishan Gypsum Co. Ltd., failed to appear for the proceedings.

Because the Chinese company did not show up, Fallon’s findings in that case are not considered as crucial as those in the Hernandez case. So far, Knauf Plasterboard has been the only Chinese company that has responded to lawsuits.

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