NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- A federal judge presiding over hundreds of lawsuits against Chinese drywall makers and installers said Thursday that he plans to hold the first trial in January for the cases, which claim the imported products emit sulfur, methane and other chemical compounds that have ruined homes and harmed residents' health.
U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon told attorneys that he expects them to pick six plaintiffs whose cases could be tried in early 2010, with the first trial starting in January.
Kerry Miller, a lead lawyer for companies named as defendants in the suits, said defense attorneys may need more time to prepare for the first batch of bellwether trials. Russ Herman, a lead plaintiffs lawyer, said he supports Fallon's scheduling plan.
"I wish we could begin trials next week. We're ready," Herman said after the hearing.
Fallon said the first batch of trials would be limited to damage claims and wouldn't include plaintiffs who blame Chinese drywall for health problems.
Around 400 plaintiffs and 20 defendants have filled out "profile forms" for the litigation, but Herman estimated that plaintiffs lawyers represent between 12,000 and 20,000 clients with claims.
Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin, a company based in China, is the only drywall manufacturer to have filled out a profile form; most of the companies are home builders. Knauf Tianjin spokeswoman Melisa Mendez Chantres said the company is investigating and trying to resolve homeowners' complaints.
"KPT's primary focus has always been ensuring the health and safety of the end-users of its product," she said in a statement. "It responded immediately to inquiries by builders that raised health concerns and hired highly regarded experts, who determined that there were no health risks to persons in the homes."
Herman said he expects several dozen other Chinese drywall manufacturers to respond to the litigation in coming weeks.
Thirty properties owned by plaintiffs are scheduled to be inspected in the coming days. Fifteen are in Florida, eight are in Louisiana, four are in Mississippi, and one each are in Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia.
Fallon said the protocols for the inspections could be "tweaked" before the next batch of roughly 1,000 inspections.
"You can think you've done the protocol in the proper way, but until you carry it out, until you conduct inspections, you really don't know," he said.