Chicago Tribune

By Pete Zurales

Mobile Press-Register.

A judge in Mobile (Ala.) County has granted class-action status to a lawsuit that seeks billions of dollars in damages from Masonite Corp., alleging the company's hardwood siding is inherently defective.

The ruling means the lawsuit represents all individuals in the United States who have homes or other structures installed with Masonite siding manufactured since Jan. 1, 1980.

Homeowners can pursue their own claim if they choose.

Masonite said as many as 3 million homes in the United States have its siding. Attorneys say the cost to repair the damage would be about $1,000 to $10,000 per house.

That means Masonite could be forced to pay billions in damages if the plaintiffs win the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges that Masonite's hardboard siding is defective because it absorbs water, causing it to swell, buckle, rot and deteriorate. The lawsuit also alleges Masonite knows its product is defective and concealed the fact from the public.

Masonite denies its product is defective. The corporation contends the fault is not with its product but rather with improper installation by homebuilders or improper maintenance by homeowners.

The corporation typically offers a 25-year warranty on the siding that pays double the purchase price if a problem is found. The company said it received few complaints about the product or the warranty. The siding has been on the market for decades.

The lawsuit originally was filed by a Baldwin County (Ala.) builder, then joined by several homeowners in Baldwin and Mobile counties.

Chicago-based Masonite is a wholly owned subsidiary of International Paper Co., based in Purchase, N.Y., which bought the company in 1988.

The case is similar to a class-action lawsuit brought against Portland, Oregon-based Louisiana- Pacific Corp., which sells siding similar to Masonite's.

LP settled the case earlier this fall, agreeing to pay homeowners up to $425 million for defective house siding the company sold nationwide.

"That is acknowledgment by someone producing an almost identical product that they have a real problem," said one of the plaintiff's attorneys, John Crowder of the Mobile law firm Cunningham, Bounds, Yance, Crowder and Brown.

LP has its siding on about 500,000 structures in the United States.

Masonite, meanwhile, has asked that the case be moved from Circuit Court in Mobile to federal court. A federal judge will decide whether to keep the case or send it back to circuit court. A ruling is expected in January.

The trial, expected to last three to four weeks, will probably start late next summer or early fall, Crowder said.

The class-action status was granted by Circuit Court Judge Robert Kendall after seven months of legal arguments and expert testimony.

Lawyers Involved: