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Suit claims roof material damaged buildings

May 28, 1999A federal suit claiming that roofing insulation seriously damaged structures seeks to make thousands of buildings nationwide eligible for inspections and free roof replacements. The lawsuit was filed in Boston against Denver-based Johns Man-ville Corp., its wholly-owned subsidiary Schuller International Inc. and Beazer East Inc. It alleges that the phenolic foam roof insulation applied to two East Coast buildings corroded the underlying steel deck and other metal components. Hundreds of millions of square feet of phenolic foam, produced in Oak Creek, were installed on structures nationwide between 1981 and 1992, according to the companies. Beazer East and Johns Manville contacted contractors, building owners and others about the foam and have paid for metal deck replacements. “Johns Manville has addressed this phenolic roofing system on a case-by-case basis since the early 1990s, and right now, we have a program in place that inspects and remediates the roofing on an as-needed basis,” company spokesman Tom Rafferty said.

Potential class action

Rafferty said that the Boston case does not call for class action. But the plaintiffs are seeking class-action status and a permanent order against the companies because of the case-by-case nature and the concern that building owners who are unaware of the problem may not have an alternative in the future. “We believe that there are thousands of building owners who do not know that they have PFRI in their roofs,” Kenneth G. Gilman, an attorney with Gilman and Pastor L.L.P. in Boston and spokesman for the plaintiffs, said in a statement. “Unfor-tunately, many building owners will not discover that PFRI is eating away at their roofs until it is too late to prevent serious damage.”

Damages sought

If approved by the court, Johns Manville and Beazer East will be required to publish and mail a “comprehensive notice” to all owners. In addition, the two would have to pay for independent inspections of all roofs that used the foam, removal of the material and the repair of all roofing systems damaged as a result of their product. The plaintiffs also are seeking compensatory, punitive and treble damages under federal racketeering law, fraud, negligence, breach of warrantees and unfair and deceptive trade practices statutes.Closed-cell phenolic foam was sold under the names Exeltherm Xtra, Rx, Ultraguard Premier, Weathertite Premier, Insul-Base Premier and InsulShield Premier by Koppers Co. Inc. and Johns Manville and related companies.In 1987, Koppers and Johns Man-ville created a partnership known as MA-KO Insulation Co. Koppers brought its research and development operations and Johns Manville agreed to take on marketing and distribution. Koppers was acquired by Beazer East which later sold the business to Schuller International, whose parent Johns Manville continued in the business up to seven years ago.

Company knowledge

According to the lawsuit, the manufacturers became aware that the foam was highly acidic and friable during testing by the company and others. The phenolic foam material can reach 2.0 pH, a level that can burn skin after several minutes of contact. “If the material gets wet, then water passing through the insulation can pick up the acid and deposit it onto whatever is below it,” said Richard P. Canon, a structural engineer with Canon Consulting & Engineering Co. in Spartanburg, S.C. Canon has been an expert witness in several lawsuits involving phenolic foam roofing. “The steel deck that is used in roofing usually has a primer-type of paint, so it’s not a very durable coating. The acid will cut through that coating in a relatively short period of time — less than a year. It will weaken the structure of the decking to the point that it can go from a pinhole corrosion to a series of connected pinholes that can be literally what I call a trap door.” Canon said in one building he has seen, the deck had fully corroded areas after 18 months, though the process typically takes five or six years. Such damage was found by Sebago Inc. of Gorham, Maine, and Flint Village Plaza, a shopping center in Fall River, Mass., and its three owners. At Sebago, phenolic foam installed on its headquarters resulted in at least $100,000 in damage. Because the manufacturers “secretly” knew of the foam’s characteristics, the plaintiffs alleged that the businesses therefore fraudulently received certification of the foam from Underwriters Laboratories Inc., government agencies and building code commissions. The product was marketed as being “guaranteed” to maintain its “R” insulation value for 20 years, which was also called into question. “The real danger is for people getting injured by walking across the roof, not knowing the conditions that are going on underneath,” Canon said, “falling through the roof surface and getting cut or scraped or perhaps even to the floor and being killed.” The suit cites a case at a supermarket in October 1994 in which an employee of a roofing contractor fell through a corroded deck. Locally, M.M. Schranz Roofing Inc. of Milwaukee filed a lawsuit against Koppers in 1983 alleging corrosion on a building owned by General Electric Co. The suit was settled out of court, according to Dan Busalacchi, the company owner.Other local roofing contractors contacted said they have not seen any cases of completely corroded decks in the state, but that several contracts for replacing phenolic foam installations have been let in recent years.Though a potential source of contracts for Wisconsin’s roofing companies, the need to tear up and replace large areas of roofing is not only time-consuming for owners, but can be expensive as well.“It’s not uncommon to see 5 to 25 percent of the deck have to be replaced,” Canon said. “I’ve seen anywhere from about $3.75 a square foot up to about $6 per square foot for deck replacement.”    

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