25 May 2021

James Hardie leaky home trial: Breast cancer 'easier to go through'

6:13 pm on 25 May 2021

A woman who's been wading through a leaky home battle for the last eight years says the experience has been worse than when she had breast cancer.

The High Court at Auckland

A High Court class action lawsuit regarding building materials company James Hardie is currently being heard in Auckland (file image). Photo: RNZ / Simon Rogers

Lesley Wheatley is blaming the building materials company James Hardie for what she says was faulty cladding. She says the exterior cladding allowed water to get in to the structure and turned parts of her home to a wet, Weet-Bix-like mush.

She's one of over 1000 people party to a High Court class action lawsuit being heard in Auckland, seeking around $220 million from the company.

The James Hardie group of companies denies any wrongdoing, and says the product works, has been shown to work, and the reason water got into these properties was because of poor workmanship - not the product.

Wheatley bought one unit in a 14-unit complex in 2009. She is also the chair of the complex's body corporate.

With no insurance nor any other financial aid available to her, Wheatley spent almost as much recladding the house ($300,000) as it cost to buy ($340,000).

"It has been hell and back since 2013," she said, referring to when the water penetration and damage was first discovered.

"This was not fair. There was anger, desolation, absolute depression. I've mentioned before that I've been through breast cancer... and I do believe it's easier to go through breast cancer than to find out your home is a leaky home," Wheatley said.

"With breast cancer, a doctor tells you 'your appointment is this day, you turn up, do this, do that', and you've got the medical system guiding you and caring for you.

"When you've got a leaky home, you suddenly find your home's leaky - where do you go? There's no rule book, no guide book... you really do feel alone."

Wheatley said she was in no doubt that the James Hardie cladding - called Harditex - was at fault.

"To see what was underneath when the original cladding was removed... it looked as though the material had been burnt. It was black. Weet-Bix is the best description. It was disgusting. It was horrifying to see."

The company is defending the claim. Lawyers said the Harditex product worked and the type - fibre cement - was a common and approved type of cladding.

James Hardie lawyer Bruce Scott said problems only arose when it was installed incorrectly.

"Not surprisingly, moisture has got in as a result of that aggregation of defective construction," he said of one of the houses in the case.

He pointed out assessments of one house found "atrocious" building work which did not comply with the James Hardie Technical Instructions - the "how-to" for tradespeople, which was required to be adhered to for the warranty to be valid.

In court today, Scott cross-examined two of the plaintiffs. He pointed out a lack of maintenance by the owners as possibly contributing to the lack of watertightness.

The case continues before Justice Whata.

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