Past lawsuits alleged KB Home knew of defects in Willowbrook

EAST MANATEE -- Two whistleblower lawsuits field against KB Home years ago that have since been settled alleged the home building company knew of structural defects in the Willowbrook town home community in East Manatee prior to selling the units.

The discovery of the lawsuits is another chapter in the Willowbrook saga, in which roughly 70 residents have requested the home builder buy back their units. The residents have battled with the California-based builder for years over structural defects linked to water intrusion and sinking floors on the second and third floor decks and interior floors, along with signs of mold.

Since Aug. 3, more than 70 balconies have been inspected inside the 272-unit community by Manatee County building inspectors at the request of residents. More than 30 have been ruled unsafe. The Willowbrook condos were KB Home's first venture into Manatee County. KB Home began selling homes in Willowbrook in 2006.

In two suits, Matthew Brown vs. KB Home and Ruben O'Neill vs. KB Home, it was alleged structural defects, considered "life-threatening," were discovered in Willowbrook and were brought to the attention of KB Home's Florida division management staff.

The cases state the plaintiffs objected to KB Home closing on the defective units until the problems were corrected, but say KB Home proceeded with the sales of the homes.

Brown, a former regional construction manager in KB Home's Fort Myers operation, and O'Neill, a former director of human resources for KB Home's Fort Myers, Tampa and Treasure Coast entities, were later fired from their positions. O'Neill filled a lawsuit in 2007, just months after being terminated, and Brown filed suit in 2009, also months after being terminated.

O'Neill states he was approached by a sales executive in 2007 in regards to "illegal activity in connection with KB Home's concealment and failure" to disclose defects in 50 to 60 Willowbrook town homes. The suit goes on to say KB Home's chief lawyer and an executive were notified by an engineering firm of various building code violations in the development and that "substandard/inadequate materials" were used.

KB Home says the claims were unfounded and released a statement in response to the lawsuits when contacted by the Herald:

"In 2007, it was identified that a correction in product was required for column construction in Willowbrook. All closings were immediately put on hold, homeowners received notification and corrections were immediately made under an engineer's advice, and to the homeowners satisfaction."

The cases for Brown and O'Neill were dismissed and the details of the settlements were not immediately available.

But residents say they were not informed and some have sought legal counsel.

"I was one of the original buyers and I was never disclosed on those issues," said Patrick McGettigan, who has owned a home in Willowbrook since 2007, a home that has been ruled unsafe. "I had to move out multiple times so KB Home could fix issues in my house. Then I find out they knew about it from the beginning. It's ridiculous we have to honor a disclosure they didn't honor at the table."

Mike Hamilton, a local licensed contractor and president of CMM Commercial Contractors Inc., performed an inspection of the residence of Willowbrook homeowner Roxanne Miller last year and testified before the American Arbitration Association on the condition of her home. Hamilton previously told the Herald he noticed structural problems, including architectural plans not being followed and boards not being nailed together. He said the lumber used to build the home was infected with mold before it was ever installed and the contamination continued to spread throughout the structure.

Documents provided by Miller regarding her arbitration trial show an engineer that testified on behalf of KB Home agreed with most of the findings, including active mold in the home.

Over the past month, Willowbrook residents have made contact with roughly 10 KB Home communities in the Tampa Bay area, all with similar claims of structural defects.

Manatee County government has since proposed state legislation to void mandatory arbitration clauses in contracts for the sale and construction of homes. Willowbrook residents told the county commission board during a Aug. 21 public meeting that mandatory arbitration clauses were included in their contracts, which prohibits them from suing the developer for poor construction. If passed by the state Legislature, a homeowner could file a lawsuit against the contractor rather than be forced to go through a mandatory arbitration process.

Nick Williams, East Manatee reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411 ext. 7049. Twitter:@_1NickWilliams

Related stories from Bradenton Herald