Across the County, Taxpayer-Funded Turf Fields Are Falling Apart After Just a Few Years
At least 20 artificial turf fields at schools across San Diego County have deteriorated while still under warranty. Yet instead of getting a free replacement, some schools shelled out even more money for another new field. Without much pushback from public school officials, taxpayers have been left holding the bag for a private company’s admittedly defective product.
When Carlsbad High School’s $790,000 artificial turf field started looking lumpy and thin just five years after it was installed, school district officials reached out to the manufacturer, FieldTurf USA.
FieldTurf gave them two options: The school could get a new field with the same turf material that fell apart for free, or pay to upgrade to a synthetic grass that would hold up for eight years or more, as initially promised.
Carlsbad opted for turf that wouldn’t wear out prematurely. In total, over six years, the school paid FieldTurf $942,000 for two artificial grass fields even though the first round of turf was defective and had an eight-year warranty.
Defective FieldTurf fields installed from 2006 to 2011 are rapidly falling apart all over the country, including in San Diego County, where more than 20 fields needed replacement while still under warranty. Fake turf grass is tearing out during normal use, creating unsightly and uneven playing surfaces that can pose a hazard for players. Instead of withstanding a beating from athletes and the sun for years, the blades quickly become brittle and shed, resulting in a field failure.
A sweeping review of public records obtained by Voice of San Diego reveals that as FieldTurf’s fields failed prematurely, the company demanded more money from local schools wanting a sturdy replacement, seeking $25,000 to $300,000 for “upgraded” turf. Those unwilling to pay for a second time would receive the same weak grass in their replacement field and no new warranty.
Five chose the upgrade, and together spent more than $936,000, while others opted for more of the same turf that failed them for free.
Carlsbad chose the upgrade.
“Why would we have more of the same failing product?” said Carlsbad Unified’s deputy superintendent, Suzanne O’Connell. “You have to make the call whether it’s worth it to pursue legal avenues.”
“There were bald spots. There were faded spots. We were not willing to risk injury for another season,” she said.
Forty-five miles away, at Valhalla High in El Cajon, school officials received similar options a few years earlier when their 2007 turf field began to fail just four years after installation. District leaders there chose the free replacement, and the Valhalla field – again – quickly began to look worse for wear and now has no warranty to fall back on.
Carlsbad and Valhalla are not alone.
At fields across the county, artificial grass blades are breaking off and thinning out, lying flat rather than standing up and fields are balding in some places and clumping in others only a couple years after installation.
Not exactly what was promised by one of the nation’s leading turf companies.
FieldTurf officials don’t dispute they installed defective fields for several years. The turf company even went to court against its artificial grass supplier in 2011, blaming it for the product failures.
While the legal battle was under way, records show FieldTurf left local schools in the dark while prodding them to take advantage of special upgrade “offers” purportedly available to only their most valued clients.
Without much pushback from public school officials, taxpayers have been left holding the bag for a private company’s admittedly defective product.
San Diego County schools heavily invested in FieldTurf products over the last decade, paying the Canadian company more than $33 million. More than 20 local FieldTurf fields were replaced less than eight years after installation, records show.
This map shows all the FieldTurf fields and costs Voice of San Diego could document with public records provided by San Diego County’s public schools and colleges. Some agencies said older field records had been destroyed, while others simply could not be located. Map by Tristan Loper.
Despite the turf troubles, FieldTurf managed to corner and hold onto the region’s artificial turf market by convincing several school districts to skip a competitive bid normally required of public works projects and sole-source the job to them.
Now, the darling turf company of schools throughout the region must contend with a growing number of lawsuits that use its own words against it.
‘They Ought to Get Their Money Back’
School districts elsewhere in the state and across the nation are suing FieldTurf. They claim the company knowingly sold schools defective turf that failed years before the eight-year warranty ran out, then charged clients again to swap it out with a non-defective product.
“When the grass falls out, it doesn’t grow back,” said Peter Lindborg, a Glendale attorney representing several California school districts suing FieldTurf. “It’s public entities using taxpayer funds and not getting what they bought.”
So far, local school districts – including the second largest school district in the state, San Diego Unified – have sat out of the litigation effort, even though records show they’ve endured the same tactics and paid the price, twice.
“There are a lot of districts that bought the ‘upgrades.’ They ought to get their money back,” Lindborg said.
Though no local districts have stepped into the legal fray, they stand to benefit if the lawsuits are successful because other districts are seeking an injunction against FieldTurf to stop the company from engaging in concerning business practices. Some local districts may also file suit if the other districts are successful.
FieldTurf officials downplayed the turf problems and said issues from past installations are dealt with as they come up. Problem fields were sold beginning in 2006 under various brand names, including Duraspine and Prestige.
“FieldTurf is aware of the issues with certain Duraspine fibers, which have primarily occurred in high-UV areas or with particular colors,” said Darren Gill, a FieldTurf vice president and spokesman, in a statement. “We no longer use these fibers, have worked closely with our customers to resolve this issue when it has arisen and have always been dedicated to honoring our warranties and remediating any affected fields where appropriate.”
The company estimates just 250 Duraspine fields were impacted by the defect, or about 8 percent of the 3,000 Duraspine turf installations, and a fraction of the 13,000 total FieldTurf fields installed worldwide.
That number, though, only includes fields replaced under warranty. It does not include fields that haven’t been replaced, like the one at El Cajon Valley High School, which went from this, in 2010 …
FieldTurf v. TenCate
At the center of the current lawsuits against FieldTurf are the company’s own claims against its former artificial grass supplier, TenCate.
FieldTurf sued TenCate in March 2011 in federal court in Atlanta for fraud and breach of contract, citing a defect in the product line dating back to late 2005 and persisting until 2011.
By 2009 and 2010, field owners reported that “fields were splitting and shedding during routine use” covering player uniforms, and “other customers reported excessive thinning and fading of the fibers,” plaintiff FieldTurf wrote in the lawsuit. “FieldTurf built more than 100 fields using defective fibers that are degrading prematurely,” most of them at “high schools, colleges and universities.”
FieldTurf accused TenCate of making changes to the grass fiber and the manufacturing process, and for using lackluster UV stabilizers, which help the fields endure sunrays – especially important in San Diego.
The case against TenCate – which cost FieldTurf $7.9 million in legal fees and sought more than $30 million in damages – settled out of court in May 2014 for an undisclosed amount.
Ostensibly, settlement money received by FieldTurf is supposed to help pay for field replacements, to right the wrong done to customers. But some schools have been quick to shell out more public funds to finally get a quality, non-defective turf field.
At the TenCate trial in 2014, FieldTurf employees painted a picture of a company churning out fields nonstop and fudging the numbers in tuft bind tests, which measure the force needed to pull out the grass. The higher the number, the sturdier the turf.
According to an internal memo read during the trial, Fieldturf’s then-director of quality and product performance, John Rodgers, discovered the company was testing 20 turf samples, but tossing out the five low scores before calculating the average tuft bind. Doing so skewed results to make the turf seem stronger than it was.
“When one picks and chooses data, any theory can be proved, sometimes with a catastrophic result,” Rodgers reportedly wrote, according to court transcripts. “We are at risk of opening FieldTurf up to legal action if it is discovered we are practicing this technique.”
Weak tuft bind doomed Scripps Ranch High School’s FieldTurf Duo field in 2006, leading to its free replacement in 2009 with problem-ridden Duraspine. That field remains in place today.
Problems with the Duraspine fields arose early on, said former FieldTurf executive Kenneth Gilman, son of the company’s late founder.
“In late 2006, it became clear that the product wasn’t performing in accordance with our earlier expectations,” Gilman told the court, according to the transcripts. This occurred while the product, “sold at the highest prices in the market. The premium over the competition was approximately a dollar per square foot.”
That adds up when you consider a standard high school football field spans 80,000 square feet.
Perhaps the most damning testimony to come out of the TenCate trial came from FieldTurf CEO Eric Daliere.
On the stand, Daliere confirmed the company installed as many as 41 fields using the defective product after it sued TenCate, saying they didn’t want to “create a problem for the school by throwing the bid process up” after already securing a contract to provide the bad turf.
When pressed on the topic, Daliere said, “We stood ready to stand by our warranty and we have.”
Many field warranties, like the one for Carlsbad High, say explicitly no cash refunds will be given. Instead, FieldTurf will repair or replace defective turf without charge “to the extent required to meet the warranty period.”
FieldTurf’s interpretation of its warranty language locally has often meant offering districts more of the defective turf for free. Asked whether such an approach is legal and ethical, company officials said, “Customers with fields with fiber issues were offered a free replacement or the opportunity to upgrade their fields.”
“We have an eight-year warranty on our fields, and we have always been committed to making sure all our fields make it through their warranty periods. This has included replacing fields where warranted,” said Gill, the FieldTurf spokesman.
The company’s reasoning that two defective fields can provide the promised eight years of use doesn’t address the fact that districts didn’t pay for a defective product. They paid for a quality one, marketed as “the best,” and some never got what they paid for.
FieldTurf’s newer warranties have stricter terms aimed at further limiting customer options in the event of a defect.
“This Warranty is limited to the remedies of repair and replacement … all other remedies or recourse which might otherwise be available are hereby waived by the Purchaser,” the 2015 warranties for fields at Helix, Grossmont and El Capitan high schools said.
Schools Get Turf Burned
San Diego County public schools went on an artificial turf-buying spree at the same time FieldTurf was rolling out its defective turf product. The results showed.
Mesa College saw its $612,000 FieldTurf field fail after six years. Officials there chose to pay $148,000 for an upgrade.
Grossmont Union High School District project manager Dena Johnson voiced her concerns to FieldTurf about the Granite Hills High School field in early 2013, writing in an email:
Tim, we purchased a Fieldturf field for Granite Hills High School about three or four years ago and we having a few issues:
1. We have seams that are coming apart.
2. We have a discoloring going on all over the field
3. We have turf fraying going on.
I would like to have you come out and look at the field for an assessment of what is going on.
FieldTurf confirmed the field at Granite Hills High and Mount Miguel High needed replacements for premature deterioration. FieldTurf’s regional sales representative Tim Coury took the opportunity to push for an upgrade in an April 2013 email.
It would be great if you can find a way to ‘upgrade’ to our latest technology……FieldTurf Revolution (see attached).
Grossmont Union High School District declined and took the free fields only.
When Valley Center High’s 2008 Duraspine field deteriorated, Valley Center-Pauma Unified Superintendent Mary Gorsuch said the upgrade option was “considered to be preferential and was approved” by the school board even though the field was still under warranty.
District records show the school’s Associated Student Body pitched in $30,000 to help pay for a non-defective replacement, while the district kicked in the remaining $130,000 in 2015.
Fallbrook High School paid FieldTurf $500,000 for its field in 2007, and more than $175,000 to replace it with better turf six years later in 2013.
Hiding the Ball
FieldTurf hasn’t always been transparent about the problems it had with its popular turf.
After negotiating a massive sole-source contract to provide all of San Diego Unified’s turf fields, FieldTurf wanted to switch from providing its defective Duraspine line to Revolution turf in 2011.
In a March 9, 2011, letter to the district, Coury calls the change a free “offer” and “an opportunity to get the latest advancement from FieldTurf without the added costs that others will pay.”
“This technology will ensure that fields play at a high performance for a longer period of time,” Coury wrote, adding:
FieldTurf has agreed to make this ‘no additional cost’ offer to a select group of our most important customers. I am happy that San Diego Unified made the list !
The defect at the center of FieldTurf’s supplier lawsuit filed eight days earlier isn’t mentioned once.
Coury told San Diego Unified officials the old turf was still available, but encouraged use of the new product going forward, calling it the “future of FieldTurf installations across the Country.”
“This (defect) was not something we have hid from,” FieldTurf officials said in a statement. “We did not specifically contact every Duraspine customer because this is not an issue that impacted every Duraspine field. FieldTurf has been forthcoming as possible with our customers when dealing with issues associated with Duraspine, given our evolving understanding of the issue and the constraints imposed by litigation with our former fiber supplier and certain customers.”
‘If They Are Successful, We Will Be All Over It’
FieldTurf officials stand by the quality of their current turf products, and said they’re ready to “defend ourselves vigorously against any attempts to defraud our company or the reputation of our products.”
The districts suing FieldTurf – like the Chaffey Joint Union High School District in San Bernardino, the Bret Harte Union High School District in the Central Valley and the private Crystal Springs Uplands School in the Bay Area – are seeking an injunction to prevent FieldTurf from giving districts the warranty runaround and charging for upgrades.
Carlsbad Unified hasn’t sued, but officials there haven’t ruled out litigation against FieldTurf if others see success, or if their newly upgraded Carlsbad High field quickly falls apart again.
“If they pursue this lawsuit and are successful, then we would have no hesitation in pursuing one of our own. Then there would be precedent-setting case law,” said O’Connell, Carlsbad’s deputy superintendent. “We felt we have nothing to lose by watching it carefully, and if they are successful, we will be all over it.”
Coronado Unified has not filed suit, but the district had Coronado High’s FieldTurf field tested for wear in recent months to investigate potential litigation. Officials there declined to produce the results.
“If a customer discovers an issue with a Duraspine field, or any other FieldTurf product, we encourage the customer to contact us,” FieldTurf said in a statement.
For now, FieldTurf’s future in San Diego County looks bright.
New fields just went in at San Diego State University and Mt. Carmel High School in Poway Unified, and San Diego Unified is moving ahead with plans for 55 new turf fields by 2019, many at elementary schools.
All of them will be FieldTurf.
Next in the series: FieldTurf USA turned failure into opportunity when dozens of its artificial turf fields quickly fell apart at public schools across San Diego County. No one held the turf company line and wrung more money from local customers than regional FieldTurf salesman Tim Coury.