An estimated 40,000 Maryland homeowners who have faulty polybutylene plastic plumbing have five weeks to stake their claim to a $950 million national settlement -- one of the largest property class action suits in U.S. history.
Under terms settling a Tennessee lawsuit that became final in late 1995, some 6 million homeowners nationwide are seeking compensation for property damage, repair costs and replacement of plumbing systems.
In the past four years, a national hot line has received about 143,000 claims, totaling $360 million.
But on Aug. 21, the two-year period to file claims expires.
If homeowners do not file claims by the deadline, they will face more complicated legal proceedings.
"We are telling people you've got two years to come on in and get your money back for polybutylene pipes that leaked, but after that we're not going to let people come in for claims as easy," said Washington attorney Arthur Bryant, executive director of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, a Washington-based public interest law firm.
In the next few weeks, Baltimore-area plumbing inspectors and consumer affairs officials say, they expect calls from 200 to 300 more homeowners in each area jurisdiction.
In Anne Arundel County, officials say, an estimated 28,000 homes were built in the 1980s with polybutylene pipes. In Baltimore County, officials estimate that half the houses built during the mid-1980s have such pipes.
Plumbers say this means thousands of homeowners have replaced or are likely to replace their polybutylene systems.
"This is the biggest catastrophe of plumbing yet," said Tom Doughney, president of the Maryland Plumbing and Mechanical Inspectors Association and a Howard County plumbing inspector. "There's never been something installed in so many homes that failed so much."
In the late 1970s, Shell Oil Co. promoted the pipes, which are made from a resin byproduct of an oil-refining process, as durable for plumbing. Two manufacturers -- Hoechst Celanese Corp. and DuPont Co. -- marketed the systems, saying it was cheaper than copper piping and would last the lifetime of most buildings.
In the 1980s, during a construction boom, the pipes were installed in thousands of homes: blue pipes between the curbside meter and the house, gray pipes connected by gray fittings inside the house.
But within a few years, the plumbing was found, in some cases, to react to chlorine -- commonly found in drinking water -- causing the pipes to corrode and leak or burst.
"The pipes break like bread when it gets stale," said Bob Beringer, chief of the Howard County utilities bureau. "It [polybutylene] loses its flexibility, and it just cracks."
In 1993, Trial Lawyers for Public Justice sued Shell in Texas. But after a state judge refused to approve the proposed $750 million settlement, lawyers in Tennessee and Alabama began filing their own class-action suits.
In October 1995, a California judge brought together 50 lawyers representing plaintiffs in 21 states to forge a single national agreement.
Since 1991, the three companies producing the piping have paid homeowners through a nonprofit organization called Plumbing Claims Group Inc. in Houston.
In a typical case, a homeowner might receive $1,500 to $2,500 to cover damage and pipe replacement.
The latest agreement creates a fund of at least $950 million until 2009, said lawyers in the suit.
For leaks that occur or are reported after Aug. 21, consumers may be eligible to get new plumbing within 10 to 16 years after installation of the pipes.
Typically, plumbing inspectors say, when one piping system in a neighborhood springs a leak, other systems often follow.
Information on filing a claim: Plumbing Claims Group, 800-356-3496.
Pub Date: 7/13/97