Seven Hampton Roads families whose homes were wrecked by toxic Chinese drywall are hoping to collect $2.6 million from the product's manufacturer by next week.
Attorneys for Chinese manufacturer Taishan Gypsum told U.S. District Court Judge Eldon Fallon that they will pay the judgment amount to homeowners in Newport News, Williamsburg and Virginia Beach. Fallon gave Taishan two weeks from the March 17 hearing in New Orleans to pay the amount in full.
Fallon ordered a hearing in late April to determine damage amounts for around 4,000 other homeowners across the country.
"I think this has the potential to make history," said Fred Michaux, whose Newport News townhome was built with toxic drywall. "There is something happening that is bigger than our homes … there are a lot of product liability situations that happen where countries say, 'I'm not paying,' this may be a turning point. The issue is bigger than our homes."
From 2006 to 2009, Chinese drywall was used to build more than 200 homes in Hampton Roads. Statewide, more than 400 homes were reported to have toxic Chinese drywall. Chinese drywall was imported during the mid-2000s because of a shortage of U.S.-made building materials during the housing boom. The imported drywall emitted sulfur and other chemical gases that corroded metal, including electrical wiring, appliances and fire suppression, heating and air-conditioning systems. Additionally, homeowners reported respiratory and other health problems.
Four of the seven homes in the lawsuit against Taishan Gypsum are located in Williamsburg, two in Newport News and one in Virginia Beach. The amount of money each family will receive is based on the average cost to repair the home.
In 2010, Fallon ordered Taishan to make the payment. Shortly after that order, the company fired their original attorneys and failed to appear in court for any further proceedings until last week's hearing, according to court documents.
During that hearing Bernard Taylor, one of the new attorneys for Taishan, said it was fear and not understanding how to maneuver through the American justice system that caused his client's absence, according to a court transcript.
"Your honor, it was fear, fear by our client, that caused many of the issues that we are here dealing with today," Taylor said. "The unintended result of that fear, your honor, was to show disrespect to this court … none of that was intended. … Our client had dug a deep hole, a deep ditch, but our client is prepared to walk out of that ditch and back into this litigation. … We have commitments from our client to pay the full amount of the judgment."
Fallon didn't seem sympathetic to the reasoning Taylor offered for his client's absence. Fallon said Taishan "thumbed its nose at the court" and that there was "no excuse for the conduct," according to the court transcript.
Arnold Levin, a Philadelphia attorney who is one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, was doubtful about Taishan's agreement to pay the seven homeowners.
"To say the least, I do not and we do not trust this group of defendants. ..." Levin said, according to the court transcript. "They dragged us for four or five years through litigation. ... When we finally get close to getting relief for just a few of the 4,000 who have judgments in excess of $2.7 million, what do they do? They fired their attorneys and they go back to China."
Michaux moved to the area in 2007 with his wife and three children to pastor The City Life Church. The church has campuses in Newport News and Williamsburg. Michaux said they used their life savings to buy their Hollymeade home. Shortly after moving into the home, they noticed problems with their electrical equipment and began experiencing muscle pain, skin and eye irritation, and upper respiratory problems.
"We are just thankful that we were able to recover," Michaux said. "It was five years of us living on the verge of bankruptcy. We went on a five-year journey of renting and struggling, of thinking we were going to lose everything and it turned around in the past two years."
The Michaux family bought a home in the Denbigh section of Newport News in August. Michaux says he hopes this is a sign that other families will also be paid for damages.
Levin still seemed skeptical about whether Taishan would pay, when contacted by phone Tuesday.
"They agreed to pay," Levin said. "We've seen nothing. I'll wait and see."
Speed can be reached by phone at 247-4778.