The state Supreme Court has agreed to hear a lawsuit brought by a group of Quadrant Corp.-built homeowners who claim poor construction has left their new houses unlivable.
Following on the heels of another set of suits that ended in a confidential settlement, a group of homeowners brought a civil action against the Weyerhaeuser Co. subsidiary in 2008, claiming rushed construction of the homes left them susceptible to mold.
The homeowners have alleged that they or their children have been made sick by mold spores in the homes, described by one industrial hygienist as a “toxic soup.”
The choice they’re left with, they claim, is whether to live with sick kids or abandon their new homes.
The decision before the high court, though, will center on whether Quadrant homeowners gave up their right to a jury trial when they signed closing documents that included a clause mandating private, out-of-court arbitration to resolve problems with the homes.
A King County Superior Court judge hearing the case initially ruled that the suits could go forward, but that decision was largely reversed by the state Court of Appeals. Now, the state Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments on the case, which will likely take place early next year.
Homeowners attorney Lory Lybeck described the question before the court as a “public health issue,” which Quadrant is intent on keeping private.
“All that Quadrant is asking for is to kick this out of a public forum so they can have a secret resolution to these claims,” Lybeck said.
“Tell me which of these kids gave up their right to a jury trial,” he continued. “It’s just nuts.”
In a statement issued late last month, a Quadrant spokesperson described the claims as “unfounded,” then contended that the company had not had an opportunity to inspect the houses. The spokesperson went on to describe arbitration as “a fair and expeditious way to resolve these claims.”
“We believe arbitration is the correct course, but either way, we believe the larger claims are unfounded and we will continue to vigorously defend the facts,” the Quadrant spokesperson said. “While the State Supreme Court weighs the appeal of the plaintiffs, we stand ready to provide remedy to the plaintiffs at any time.”
The owners allege that Quadrant, the state’s largest single-family homebuilder, sold thousands of houses around Western Washington without paying adequate attention to quality control. Further, the owners claim Quadrant concealed defects within the homes from prospective buyers before hustling them through an accelerated purchase process.
In court documents, attorneys for the homeowners allege that “widespread, shoddy construction” in Quadrant homes has left an unknown number of customers with “sick houses.”
The homeowners contend that mold growing in the houses — flowering, they claim, because rushed construction schedules didn’t leave time to dry out wet building materials — is circulated through poorly designed, badly built heating systems, poisoning occupants.
During the boom years, Quadrant boasted that its homes were built on a 54-day schedule. Time-lapse photography available on the company website showed a two-story home springing from bare ground, finishing with a new owner backing a U-Haul truck into the driveway.
When mold was found, one Quadrant production manager said during a deposition filed in the suit, it was sponged with a bleach solution and scrubbed before the home was finished. The company didn’t tell prospective buyers when mold was found, the production manager said in court documents; like other issues arising during construction, the builder didn’t feel it necessary to notify buyers of a problem that had been solved.
Reviewing the claims by 27 residents of Quadrant homes, industrial hygienist Michelle Copeland found that each case involved “the issue of unhealthy air arising from the same common set of conditions including inadequate air flow and air exchange within the home and excessive moisture resulting in the growth and accumulation of mold.”
“These common conditions combine to create an unhealthy and ‘toxic soup’ affecting the air quality in the homes,” Copeland said in a Feb. 21, 2008, declaration filed in King County Superior Court.
Homeowner Jon Sigafoos previously said that, for his family and several others, that “soup” has resulted in a string of illnesses that threaten to become chronic.
Sigafoos said his two young children see their health improve whenever they get a chance to be out of the home for a week or so. But the asthma, respiratory infections and sinus trouble return when they come home.
After examining the family as part of the lawsuit, Dr. Matthew Keifer, a professor of internal medicine with the University of Washington, found that the house was to blame.
“The longer the Sigafoos family live in and are exposed to the conditions in their Quadrant home, the greater the risk that the health problems caused to each of them will become chronic or permanent even after they are removed from the unhealthy environment,” Keifer said in a declaration filed with the court on behalf of the plaintiffs.
“It is in the best interest of each of the Sigafoos family members to remove themselves (from) the harmful air quality in their Quadrant home as soon as they reasonably can.”
In a statement, Quadrant claimed their own industrial hygienist found no problems in one home alleged to have serious defects.
“Based on the information we have been allowed to collect from the plaintiffs, we believe the claims are unfounded and assertions made to the media by plaintiff’s attorney cannot be supported,” a Quadrant spokesperson said in the statement.
In a May 12, 2008 letter sent to the law firm representing the homeowners and provided to seattlepi.com by Quadrant, attorney Michael R. Scott offered the same claim.
Scott said industrial hygienist Coreen Robbins found “no basis for concern about the indoor air quality” of the home. The Quadrant attorney went on to offer to settle the claim by making the “recommended repairs” to the home free of charge if the plaintiff agreed to drop the lawsuit.
Reviewing a decision by King County Superior Court Judge Chris Washington to allow the litigation to move forward, the state Court of Appeals for Division One reversed Washington’s ruling in October 2009 and found that the arbitration cause was valid.
Arguing on behalf of Quadrant, an attorney said the homeowners’ complaints should be handled through out-of-court arbitration, as he alleges the sale agreements signed by the buyers requires. Such a move would place the litigation outside the county court system and would remain largely private.
Lybeck said he’s heard from more than a dozen other Quadrant home buyers with concerns similar to those voiced by his clients. He said he is prepared to pursue those claims after the question of arbitration is resolved.
Lybeck noted that, whether or not the company ultimately succeeds, Quadrant has already delayed the process.
“Quadrant has already won in one respect,” he said, “because these people are still trapped in their houses.”
The Supreme Court could take up the case as early as next spring. Lybeck said he expects advocates for consumer rights and access to the courts may join the suit, as might representatives for the building industry.
Thank You National Apartment Association. I will do my best to get this very important information out ASAP to numerous owners, investors, huge property management companies (e.g., Riverstone Residential), attorneys, and judges, AND, of course, to the MANY people who are currently living in MOLD-INFESTED APARTMENT COMPLEXES right now! katy
“Changes in construction methods have caused US buildings to become perfect petri dishes for mold and bacteria to flourish when water is added. Instead of warning the public and teaching physicians that the buildings were causing illness; in 2003 the US Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform, a think-tank, and a workers comp physician trade organization mass marketed an unscientific nonsequitor to the courts to disclaim the adverse health effects to stave off liability for financial stakeholders of moldy buildings. Although publicly exposed many times over the years, the deceit lingers in US courts to this very day.”