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Manufactured Home Builder Accused in Federal Lawsuit

February 11, 1988|PAUL FELDMAN | Times Staff Writer

Riverside-based Fleetwood Enterprises Inc., the nation's largest manufacturer of mobile homes and recreational vehicles, Wednesday was charged by the Department of Justice with failing to meet federal construction and safety standards in connection with almost 20,000 manufactured homes built in 1983 and 1984.

In a civil suit filed in federal court in Wilmington, Del., Fleetwood was accused of building some homes with inadequate support walls and others with metal straps insufficient to properly hold down the roofs.

Vindication Predicted

The lawsuit, billed as the first in which the federal government is seeking civil penalties under a 1974 national manufactured housing construction and safety act, could result in a maximum fine exceeding $20 million, according to prosecutors.

Fleetwood officials, however, predicted that the firm will be vindicated in court.

"We're ready to put on a defense and expect we'll win the case," said William Lear, the firm's vice president and general counsel. "We're quite satisfied our engineering was proper."

Lear said Fleetwood has had "no history of significant consumer complaints at all" with the manufactured homes in question. Since 1984, Lear added, Fleetwood has changed the design of its products to conform to the demands of federal Department of Housing and Urban Development engineers.

"We thought we were right," Lear said, "but you don't fight (the government) on engineering interpretations."

The federal lawsuit charges that the design and construction of the manufactured homes, which--unlike recreational vehicles--are typically anchored to land, were inadequate to resist high winds and sustain design load requirements.

About half the homes manufactured with uplift straps and fasteners to hold together two separate sections did "not conform to accepted engineering practices and . . . are not of sufficient strength to withstand the load requirements established by the federal manufactured home construction and safety standards," according to the lawsuit.

No Recall Planned

The homes in question were constructed at Fleetwood plants in Idaho, Mississippi, Oregon, Texas, Washington, Florida and Georgia.

Fleetwood, according to a Times business survey, operates 46 plants in the United States and Canada, with $1.24 billion in sales for the year ending in January, 1987. The firm, which markets motor homes under the Southwind, Pace Arrow and Jamboree brand names, was ranked the 27th largest California company last year.

Lear termed the legal action "the latest salvo in what is a 4-year-old dispute with HUD on these issues." He added that there will be no federal demand for a recall of the homes since they were not deemed to have serious defects or safety hazards. Rather, Lear said, Fleetwood has been charged with failure to meet federal standards, a less serious violation.

The lawsuit is not the first run-in that Fleetwood has had with federal officials. In December, 1986, the firm agreed to a $440,000 civil penalty and a $60,000 criminal fine as part of a settlement of government charges of invoice padding, according to the Veterans Administration.

"When you're large," Lear said Wednesday, "one of the things that goes with the territory is battles with the government."

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