In March of 2009, Mr. Willis learned that his newly constructed home, where he resided with his wife and boys ages 5 and 3, had been constructed with toxic Chinese Drywall. Drywall is gypsum board used to construct walls in homes. Chinese Drywall was imported from China as a result of a drywall shortage following a string of U.S. hurricanes in 2004-05. The drywall was made from gypsum obtained from Chinese gypsum mines that were contaminated with large amounts of sulfur. The contaminated drywall interacts with moisture, particularly in humid climates like South Florida, and emits an invisible sulfuric gas which corrodes metals and irritates human respiratory systems.
Mr. Willis and his family had noticed during the 18 months they had lived in their new home that they all suffered from respiratory ailments, sinus infections and nose bleeds. Their air conditioning systems and several electronics and appliance systems kept breaking down. They did not realize the cause until learning their new home was constructed with Chinese Drywall during yet another air conditioning service call.
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It turns out that thousands of homes across the U.S. were built with Chinese Drywall, including hundreds in Mr. Willis’ hometown of Parkland, Florida. More than fifty homes in his neighborhood were identified as being built with this dangerous drywall. Many of John’s neighbors began asking Mr. Willis, an attorney and HOA board member, what they should do. The builder had just recently filed for bankruptcy and the insurance companies denied the claims under pollution exclusions. Mr. Willis began aggressively communicating with local City officials and State officials in an effort to get some answers for himself and his neighbors.
Shortly thereafter, Mr. Willis was appointed by the Mayor of Parkland to head the City’s Chinese Drywall Taskforce as a fact finder for the residents and liaison between them and elected officials. He flew to the State capitol in Tallahassee with a delegation that included the Parkland Mayor to meet with the Governor’s staff and other elected officials to educate the officials and seek relief for the victims. He toured his neighborhood with Congressman Robert Wexler, Senator Bill Nelson and the head of Florida’s Department of Health. Mr. Willis met with many news outlets and reporters to help publicize the tragedy that was occurring. These events were reported by the NY Times, Associated Press, Sun Sentinel and many local television news stations.
During his volunteer work advocating for the Chinese Drywall victims, Mr. Willis discovered that the builder of his home and his neighbors’ homes knew about the defective drywall before selling the homes. The builder, which had emerged from bankruptcy, was about to begin building more homes in his City. Mr. Willis presented a Power Point presentation to the Parkland City Commission detailing these compelling documents. The documents clearly showed that the builder’s vice president sent letters to the Chinese Drywall manufacturer complaining about the drywall many months before the builder began allowing families to move into the homes. These facts were subsequently reported in various media outlets. Regrettably, the U.S. bankruptcy laws prevented the City from denying the builder’s permits to build more homes.
Eventually, John Willis and many other advocates for the Chinese Drywall victims across the U.S. were able to get State and Federal authorities involved and offering assistance in the form of property tax reductions, Federal tax refunds, and other relief programs. Although Mr. Willis never represented any of the victims as their lawyer, he was instrumental in getting them informed and having their voices heard. There is currently a class action settlement pending in the Federal Court in New Orleans where some financial recovery is hopeful for the victims. Further information on this settlement can be found at: http://www.laed.uscourts.gov/case-information/mdl-mass-class-action/drywall.
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