Legal action is heating up in lawsuits over defective Chinese drywall. Imported mostly during the boom years of 2004 through 2006, the material emits offensive-smelling sulfurous gases that blacken copper wiring, damage or destroy air conditioner coils, and irritate the eyes, nose, and throat. The damage and complaints are most widespread in Florida, but they’ve sparked lawsuits in other states as well. Many of those suits have now found their way to a class-action “multidistrict litigation” process in the U.S. District Court for Eastern Louisiana, presided over by U.S. Judge Eldon Fallon. Assigned to the case in June, Fallon has focused on a handful of suits in which the plaintiffs allege only property damage — not health problems. These “bellwether” cases are intended to quickly establish the basic common facts about the drywall and its emissions and to determine where the law assigns responsibility — with the homeowners themselves, the builders, the drywall installers, the drywall distributors, the importers, the original manufacturers in China, any of their various insurance carriers, or some combination of parties. Trials could begin as soon as January.

To organize the process, Judge Fallon has appointed two attorney “steering committees,” one each for the plaintiffs and the defendants. And because home builders have unique interests both as defendants (sued by homeowners) and as plaintiffs (suing drywall manufacturers, installers, importers, or insurance companies), Fallon took the unusual...

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