The Record – Business Section
By Jeff Hood

August 6, 1998

When Roy Richison decided it was time for a new roof on his north Stockton home, he wanted to retain the look of its original wood shakes without the fire risk. So in 1992 – one year after the Oakland Hills fire destroyed 3,000 homes – he spent $15,000 to have a fire-resistant, simulated-wood shake roof installed, backed by a 50-year manufacturer’s warranty.

It wasn’t even five years, Richison said, before his new roof began cracking, curling and eeling, leading him to file a class-action lawsuit Friday in San Joaquin County Superior Court against Oregon-based American Cemwood, the roofing-material maker. “I would like to see them make it right for everyone who has a similar situation,” said Richison, a plastic-pipe manufacturer’s representative. “I’m not the only one whose roof is deteriorating. A lot of people spent a lot of money on what they felt was their best value. I don’t want to see this company suffer, but they need to do what’s right for the consumer.”

Not so, according to American Cemwood President Brad Kirkbride. “We’ve got a lot of roofs out there that are performing great,” Kirkbride said. Richison said that he went on his roof in early 1997 to clean off some leaves when he noticed broken shakes, in addition to the ones cracking under his feet. They had been advertised as impact-resistant.

He first complained to American Cemwood in July 1997, and the company sent an inspector to his home. In September, American Cemwood offered to send 10 bundles of replacement shakes. Richison refused, saying he didn’t want to replace bad shingles with more bad shingles. “I told them I didn’t want to replace my roof one bundle at a time,” he said. “My feeling was the only way to resolve the whole situation was to replace the roof. It appears to me these shingles are so defective they can’t survive more than five years without becoming so brittle no maintenance can be done on them.”

In May, he as offered $2,500 to end the matter. Again he refused. Then he contacted Stockton attorney James B. Brown, who along with attorneys from San Francisco, Oakland and Seattle, filed the class-action complaint on behalf of Richison and anyone else who has Cemwood shakes on their homes or other structures. American Cemwood began making the shakes, comprising roughly two-thirds Portland cement and one-third wood fibers, in 1987 and stopped in April, according to Kirkbride. He said the company stopped production because the shakes weren’t profitable, not because of a flaw.

“It was sold at the high end of the market, which becomes a pretty small market,: Kirkbride said. “Additional competition came on line, and it got pretty crowded and profits dropped.” Kirkbride said the shakes were reformulated after their debut and that American Cemwood has had other complaints, but nothing unusual for a manufacturing company. “We’d had some claims, and we deal with those on a site-specific basis,” Kirkbride said. “In every case, we would like to negotiate a settlement with the homeowner. We’re willing to sit down and talk.” That’s what Richison said he tried to do, but he felt American Cemwood’s offers weren’t realistic. He said American Cemwood left the impression it didn’t want to deal with his problem.

National Roofing & construction, which installed Richison’s roof, stopped using the Cemwood product years ago, according to general manager Mike Wood. “Unfortunately, the product has failed miserably,” said Wood, adding his firm installed the Cemwood shakes on just four homes. “It’s cupping and cracking and becoming prematurely brittle. So when a baseball or something that wouldn’t normally break a shingle hits them, they break.”

Brown said the suit’s class-action status would have to be approved by the court before it could move forward, but he said the complaint “is pretty much a perfect case for it.” He said the suit is the first national class-action case filed in San Joaquin County. The suit alleges American Cemwood knowingly advertised, warranted and sold shakes it knew to be defective to thousands of consumers throughout the United States.

“Everybody has similar damages, and it’s a superior way of handling it,” said Brown, an attorney with the Stockton law firm of Herum, Crabtree, Dyer, Zolezzi & Terpstra. “In building-product cases, sometimes their resolved fairly quickly. It depends if the defendants are sophisticated. These class actions are sometimes a way to resolve a problem for a defendant, as well as a plaintiff. It may be painful, but it may be a way to resolve their liability, he said.

The San Francisco attorney, Jonathon Selbin, was a plaintiff’s attorney in a recent class-action suit against Masonite Corp., which manufactured faulty siding for homes. The settlement was worth at least $350 million to consumers. Brown, who has litigated several class-action cases filed outside San Joaquin County, said he has worked with Selbin on six different cases during the past 4 ½ years. Richison said a class-action complaint would be the only economical way for an individual to bring a case against a manufacturer such as American Cemwood, a subsidiary of Canada’s MacMillan Bloedel, a lumber and paper firm with annual revenue in excess of $5 billion.

“I really didn’t feel that I could create enough impact by myself. I couldn’t afford to put out a tremendous amount of money,” Richison said. “It would be difficult to take on a company of that size. But I know there’s a lot more little-ol’-mes out there who can’t take them on by themselves, either.”