By Nate Raymond
Update: Just after we published this story, Judge Fallon issued
a 142-page opinion denying Taishan's motion to vacate two
default judgments in federal class actions by homeowners and
homebuilders and declining to dismiss two other class actions,
after finding the court had personal jurisdiction over the
company. "Taishan seeks to insulate itself from personal
jurisdiction by arguing that it did not know the identity of the
final purchasers or users of its drywall," Fallon wrote. "The
evidence suggests otherwise."
For all the litigation arising out of defective Chinese
drywall installed in thousands of U.S. homes, the largest
Chinese manufacturer of the odorous product, Taishan Gypsum Co
Ltd, has been a tough one to hold liable in U.S. courts.
Unlike Germany's Knauf International, which reached a
landmark settlement last year, Taishan allowed default judgments
to mount before finally making a n appearance to resist U.S.
jurisdiction. Taishan argued it didn't itself distribute the
product in the United States and that the actual sales took
place in China and were governed by its laws.
But a ruling Friday by a state judge in Florida could
provide an opportunity to land damages against Taishan. In a
16-page opinion, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Joseph Farina denied a
motion by Taishan to vacate a 2010 default judgment against the
company and declined to dismiss the case on the grounds of lack
of personal jurisdiction.
The ruling came in litigation by home builder Lennar Corp
seeking to recoup the costs of repairing homes it constructed
with Chinese drywall, which gave off foul smells and allegedly
caused some occupants health problems. The lawsuit was one of
the hundreds pending involving Chinese drywall, which found its
way into thousands of homes during a building surge following
Hurricanes Rita and Katrina in 2005 and 2007.
Hilarie Bass of Greenberg Traurig, a lawyer for Lennar Corp
and other home builders suing Taishan, said the ruling marked
the first time since lawsuits began piling up in 2009 that a
judge held that a Chinese manufacturer of drywall was subject to
U.S. jurisdiction. Bass said she plans to ask the court on
Friday to set a date for a damages trial. "I would expect this
is an opinion that will be potentially referred to for years as
first of its kind," Bass said.
The decision in some ways provides a roadmap for
establishing jurisdiction over a foreign manufacturer like
Taishan, which had hired Hogan Lovells to fight off homeowner
and builder claims following the 2010 default. After determining
that the actions of a subsidiary Taishan controlled could be
attributed to the parent company, Farina set about determining
to what extent Florida's long-arm statute would give the state
court jurisdiction over the company.
Evidence showed that the company had indeed conducted
business in the state, the judge determined, mailing drywall
samples to Florida companies and going so far as inviting
potential customers on trips to China to scope out its
headquarters. Some drywall was customized to include a phone
number in Tampa, Florida, and Taishan controlled some of the
shipping arrangements to Florida customers.
Farina also rejected Taishan's argument that it couldn't be
sued because the home builders had sustained only economic
rather than property damages. "It is enough under the long-arm
statute that the type of Taishan drywall that injured
homeowners, and caused the damages sustained by the plaintiffs,
was otherwise available for purchase in Florida," he wrote.
While limited to the state court proceedings, the ruling
could provide a preview of a similar decision expected by U.S.
District Judge Eldon Fallon in New Orleans, who is overseeing
the 310-lawsuit Chinese drywall multidistrict litigation. Fallon
and Farina, via teleconference, heard arguments together on June
29 as Taishan's lawyers at Hogan Lovells sought to vacate
federal defaults against it and dismiss lawsuits in the
multidistrict litigation on the same grounds. A ruling by Fallon
is expected in the next few weeks.
Bass said she is expecting Taishan to appeal to Florida's
3rd District Court of Appeal in Miami. In a statement, Taishan
counsel Joe Cyr of Hogan Lovells expressed displeasure at the
ruling but stopped short of saying the company would appeal. "We
believe that the court was in error for all the reasons
reflected in our papers and discussed at the hearing," he said.
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