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No end to Chinese drywall woes

Property owners have no choice but wait until lawsuits wend their way through court system

Photo: SOURCE: Florida Department of Health, License: N/A

SOURCE: Florida Department of Health

The Chinese drywall problem

Florida has had the largest number of reports of defective Chinese drywall in the United States. The map shows the number of complaints received by the Florida Department of Health from each county, through Jan. 18. A recent investigation by ProPublica indicates that the number of complaints to various agencies may seriously underrepresent the scope of the problem.

Photo: , License: N/A

But that doesn't mean the problem doesn't exist here at all.

Nine parties who own homes in Central Florida communities are plaintiffs in a massive multi-state Chinese-drywall lawsuit wending its way through the federal court system in Louisiana right now. Clifford and Crispina Henry, the owners of Pinyas Restaurant, are among them, as are Manuel and Judith Santos of St. Cloud; Thomas and Kelli Campbell of Christmas; Ramon and Nilda Rivas of Puerto Rico (a home they own in Kissimmee is the one involved in the suit); Ronald Manes and Mara and James D'Angelo of Winter Haven; and Aprile L. Douglas, Teresa Wilson and Mario and Ivanilda Martin of Lakeland. Aside from suing for damages or negotiating a deal with a cooperative contractor or drywall manufacturer, there is no official recourse for those whose homes have been affected.

Jessica Hammonds, press secretary for the Florida Department of Health, says that six cases of defective drywall were reported to the state as of Jan. 18 by residents of Orange County; eight were reported by residents of Brevard, nine by residents of Polk and one by a resident in Volusia County. So far, she says, the state has heard no complaints from Osceola County.

But a recent investigation by ProPublica, an independent nonprofit investigative news outlet, and the Sarasota Herald Tribune, indicates that the numbers of homes affected by tainted drywall may be seriously underreported. That's because the process for reporting suspected Chinese drywall in a home is a patchwork. (The two news organizations published a lengthy reported series on the drywall fiasco, which can be found at www.propublica.org.)

The federal Consumer Product Safety Commission is leading the charge in a multi-agency investigation of the drywall problem, which now affects homes in 42 states, but homeowners can direct complaints to a number of places: county health departments, state departments of health, the CPSC itself, as well as to poison-control centers, self-proclaimed Chinese-drywall remediation specialists and lawyers who are taking out ads on TV encouraging people to call if they suspect they have problem drywall. (One of those firms taking out ads in Central Florida is Morgan & Morgan, a personal-injury firm representing multiple parties in the federal lawsuit.) The CPSC says that as of Jan. 24, it has received 3,794 complaints about defective drywall, and 2,144 of them are from Florida. The Florida Department of Health, meanwhile, says it has received 728 complaints from 33 counties in Florida.

ProPublica did its own research, compiling reports from various sources, including the federal lawsuit, various tax assessment offices and the CPSC, and came up with a much higher figure: It counted 6,900 reports of tainted drywall across the nation, with 5,139 of them coming from Florida. According to ProPublica's calculations, a total of 14 complaints originating from Orange County were reported to the CPSC (per ProPublica, the CPSC would only reveal city and state for each complaint and would not provide actual addresses, so only three of the 14 addresses are contained in the organization's database). It found two reports from Osceola, one from Seminole, seven from Lake and 33 from Polk County.

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