State Politics

Bennett’s drywall amendments fuel dispute

MANATEE — State Sen. Mike Bennett filed an amendment to three separate legislative bills that would have limited liability for contractors, subcontractors, suppliers or other installers in connection with defective drywall.

But the Bradenton Republican withdrew the proposed amendments each time after homeowners protested to the bills’ sponsors, saying their residences are showing toxic effects of Chinese drywall, according to Michael Ryan, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who opposed the amendments.

“Sen. Bennett proposed an amendment to an existing bill, he did it three times, and the amendment would have protected builders, developers, suppliers and installers from liability, while hurting homeowners that did nothing wrong,” Ryan said.

He said he represents 70 clients whose homes contain tainted Chinese drywall that emits a gas that corrodes metal, such as wiring and air-conditioning components, and has raised health concerns. The Florida Department of Health released a report Thursday listing 349 residential drywall complaints from around the state.

Bennett, who lists his occupation on his Senate Web page as an electrical contractor, filed and withdrew all the amendments April 27 and 28.

But Bennett disputed Ryan’s version Thursday, saying he had not withdrawn the amendments as a result of pressure from homeowners. He said they had been a ploy designed solely “to get everybody’s attention” that he did not expect would pass anyway.

“Now, we can find a way to protect all of the Florida consumers,” Bennett said. “This is a statewide and national concern, we did exactly what we wanted to do, got everybody’s attention.

“We’re trying to get the federal government involved, help these people out,” he added. “We must start with something drastic to get peoples’ attention, to get this problem recognized.”

In Manatee, neighborhoods where tainted drywall has been reported include Heritage Harbour and Lakewood Ranch.

The text of each amendment was the same: “Property owners, contractors, subcontractors, suppliers, or other installers of drywall will not be liable for defective drywall causing personal injury or damage to property unless the property owners, contractors, subcontractors, suppliers or other installers knew or should have known that the drywall was defective. The provisions of this section shall apply to any complaint filed after January 1, 2009. This section does not apply to manufacturers of defective drywall.”

Ryan argued that the amendments violated homeowners’ rights.

“The important point of this amendment is it would have turned upside down long-standing Florida law, where such builders and contractors are responsible when they supply defective products to a homeowner,” said Ryan, an attorney with Krupnick, Campbell, Malone, Buser, Slama, Hancock, Liberman & McKee. “It would have eliminated the strict liability standards that have existed for 100 years in Florida.”

Bennett filed amendments April 27 in connection with three different bills — Senate Bills 674, 2064 and 616, according to state records.

The amendments even attracted the attention of Broward County Mayor Stacy Ritter, who interrupted an April 28 meeting of the Broward County Commission when she learned about one of them. She called it “completely appalling.”

“First of all, these people have Chinese drywall in their homes, and the developers are the ones who installed it, and they shouldn’t be absolved from liability . . .” she said, according to transcripts of the meeting.

After hearing the amendment read aloud, one commissioner said it sounded “like that would render literally nobody responsible for this.”

Sen. Cary Baker, R-Eustis, said he was not fully aware of the nature of the amendment Bennett had filed in connection with one of his bills, Senate Bill 674.

“I guess I want to make it clear, it wasn’t my amendment, we never discussed it,” he said.

Bennett said he had mentioned it to Baker, but was not sure that Baker had remembered the conversation.

And Baker did say that the amendment’s premise “makes absolute sense.”

“If you’re a small contractor and you buy a product, you have no way of doing chemical tests, it really is the manufacturer that is responsible,” Baker said.

And Bennett’s view of Ryan? “I suggest Michael Ryan learn how to negotiate and to protect people, versus worrying where his lawsuit’s going to be,” Bennett noted.

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