Newark schools file class-action lawsuit against top U.S. turf company

By Christopher Baxter and Matthew Stanmyre | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
on December 08, 2016

Darnell Grant, the football coach at Malcolm X Shabazz High School in Newark, said the FieldTurf Duraspine field there has not lived up to lofty marketing and advertising claims

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The Newark school system has filed a class-action lawsuit against the nation's leading maker of artificial sports fields, FieldTurf, alleging the company defrauded more than 100 public and private schools and municipalities in the state.

The complaint, filed late Wednesday in state Superior Court in Essex County, capped two days of fast-moving developments following an NJ Advance Media investigation that revealed the company sold high-end turf for years after executives knew it was falling apart.

Lance Kalik -- an attorney with the law firm Riker Danzig, which is representing the schools -- said the news organization's investigation "contained allegations and facts that are quite disturbing.

"If true, it means that many public bodies, not just the state-operated district, but others as well, as well as some private schools, have been sold a product that was based on potentially false and misleading marketing and sales practices," Kalik said.

The nine-count complaint, which largely relies on NJ Advance Media's reporting, alleges FieldTurf violated the state Consumer Fraud Act by concealing knowledge of the turf's problems, and by failing to change marketing and advertising claims.

The suit also alleges breach of contract, negligence and unjust enrichment.

The complaint names the State-Operated School District in Newark as the lead plaintiff and covers all FieldTurf customers in New Jersey who purchased turf fields from Jan. 1, 2005, to present. Kalik said it would ultimately be up to a court to certify the class action and determine which customers are ultimately included.

He said the lawsuit does not cover clients outside New Jersey, but he did not rule out an expansion. Other states with a large number of the turf fields in question include California, New York, Texas, Washington, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Massachusetts.

FieldTurf officials did not comment on the lawsuit, but in past statements they have strongly denied allegations of fraud and said they did not hide problems with the turf from customers. They maintain the turf's deterioration does not affect player safety.

"We are fully confident that when considered in full, the facts will show that customers in New Jersey were well-served by FieldTurf," company officials said in a statement released earlier in the week.

In 2005, Montreal-based FieldTurf began selling what it called a revolutionary turf with "unmatched durability," allowing fields to last a decade or more. The surface's grass fibers would remain "standing up" like natural grass, even after repeated usage, the company said.

At $300,000 to $500,000 each, the turf was the most expensive on the market, but FieldTurf officials justified the cost by saying it would perform better and last longer than any product sold by competitors, as well as the company's own, previous generation turf technology.

But as early as 2006, key FieldTurf executives became aware the turf, sold primarily as Duraspine or Prestige XM, was cracking, splitting and breaking apart.

Those conditions were confirmed by executives in 2007 during a trip to inspect fields in New Jersey.

All told, from 2005 until the turf was discontinued in 2012, the company sold 1,428 of these fields in the U.S. -- including 164 in the state -- for an estimated $570 million in revenue, records show. Most were paid for with tax dollars, and many have since prematurely failed.

The complaint takes aim at what more than a dozen experienced consumer attorneys have all said was FieldTurf's biggest weakness -- and biggest potential legal exposure -- in its handling of the Duraspine crisis: its decision not to notify every customer of the problem or change its marketing and advertising claims.

The attorneys said that, regardless of the condition or performance of any field, the fact that the company was making claims to customers that it knew to be misleading or untrue was likely a violation of state and federal laws guarding against false and deceptive advertising.

The class-action complaint is the first to be filed against FieldTurf -- a division of the French flooring maker Tarkett, a publicly traded company -- related to Duraspine. The company has faced at least a dozen other lawsuits, mostly over breach of contract and warranties.

Pending lawsuits in federal court in California, as well as state court in Texas, also allege fraud. The Newark lawsuit does not name specific fields, but there are several owned by the district, including the one at Malcolm X Shabazz High School.

Testing of the Shabazz turf commissioned by NJ Advance Media found the artificial grass fibers to be well below acceptable standards. The football coach there, Darnell Grant, has said the field failed to live up to the company's promises.

There are also a number of Duraspine fields in the city of Newark.

The lawsuit seeks an unspecific sum of money for restitution and damages.

The filing came hours after the state School Boards Association said it would help districts by coordinating legal advice and action through its general counsel. The head of the organization, Lawrence Feinsod, said he supported an investigation by the state attorney general.

Also, the state's leading lawmakers -- Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) -- have issued sweeping calls for accountability, including potential criminal and civil probes as well as lawsuits.

FieldTurf officials have conceded nearly one of every five U.S. Duraspine fields has been replaced under warranty. The true number of afflicted fields could be far higher, however, because the company has never notified every customer of the problem.

FieldTurf officials maintain that problems with Duraspine have not affected the "significant majority" of fields, and were primarily limited to high-UV areas such as California and Texas. But fields in the north and east have also been replaced because of the deterioration.

The officials have also reiterated that nearly all Duraspine fields in the state made it through their eight-year warranty period and are still in use.

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