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Polybutylene is a plastic resin that was used for water pipe manufacture in the U.S. from 1978 to 1995. The polybutylene (poly) pipe was promoted as the pipe of the future because of its low cost and ease of installation. During the years it was produced, it replaced traditional copper piping for both exterior and interior plumbing use.
Industry experts claim the poly piping was installed in approximately six to 10 million new or remodeled homes – or about one in every four during its 17-year reign.
Shell Chemical Company was the primary manufacturer of the poly pipe, along with Qest and Vanguard. The fittings were manufactured by Celanese and DuPont.
A typical 2,000 square foot residence cost $1,000 to $1,500 less to build with polybutylene than with copper piping so the cost savings was significant.
Polybutylene manufacturers initially claimed that their plumbing system would last a lifetime. In fact, not only did it not last a lifetime, it barely lasted a decade and caused extensive property damage when it finally corroded and leaked.
On average, poly pipes take between 10-15 years to show signs of severe deterioration. When it fails, it does so without warning.
Because of the high damage costs when polybutylene fails, insurance companies have sometimes canceled or refuse home policies because of it. The known presence of poly piping can also affect a home’s value on the real estate market.
Throughout the 1980’s, a number of polybutylene lawsuits were filed citing defective manufacturing and defective installation. Damage claims ranged in hundreds of millions of dollars.
While not admitting that their poly pipes were defective, the manufacturers removed their product from the U.S. market and agreed to fund Class Action settlements which paid out money to qualified claimants.
How To Know If You Have Polybutylene Piping
The most effective way of identifying polybutylene pipe is to have your plumbing inspected by a licensed professional.
Interior polybutylene pipes are ½” to 1” in diameter and typically are gray or white in color with a dull finish. Exterior polybutylene is usually a light blue, but it can also be gray or black in color.
Interior poly pipes enter the home through a basement wall, concrete slab or crawl space. Common places to inspect for interior poly piping are water heaters, sinks, toilets and bathtubs.
Common exterior places to inspect for poly are at the points where pipes enter the home, such as the basement or a crawl space underneath, or at the main water shutoff valve or the water meter.
Not all polybutylene pipe systems use polybutylene fittings; some use copper. If you see copper fittings on a pipe, it does not mean that you do not have poly piping.
It is believed that as the polybutylene pipe ages, it reacts with water-soluble oxidants, such as chlorine, and begins to degrade. Eventually the pipe becomes so weak through flaking and scaling that it starts to leak or even collapse. The older the poly pipe, the more likely it is that a problem will occur.
The only way to eliminate the problem of deteriorating polybutylene piping is to replace it. This procedure is relatively inexpensive if caught early, and it can be performed by a certified plumber or re-pipe specialist.
Who Can Sue
Polybutylene class action settlements may affect you or others in your community. But time is of the essence. It’s important to recognize that the final deadline for any legal action is either fast approaching or may have already passed.
If you have replaced poly piping or have experienced a leakage from an exterior or interior polybutylene pipe and want to know if you qualify under an existing class action, you should consult an attorney as soon as possible.
If you are considering taking independent legal action for your faulty poly plumbing, you should also consult an attorney.
Either way there are restrictive qualifications guidelines which an attorney can help you address.
To qualify as eligible under a polybutylene pipe claim for either Qest or Vanguard (two of the manufacturers), a claim must be made within 13 years [with acetal fittings] or 16 years [with metal fittings] after the date of installation or before the year 2009, whichever comes first ‘Big Blue’ and Vanguard Claims must be within 11 years of installation. (The pipe line coming from outside into the house is sometimes referred to as, ‘Big Blue’ because of its light blue color. This type of polybutylene is susceptible to shearing at the foundation wall due to ground settlement.
Established in 1995, the $1.1 billion Polybutylene Pipe Settlement Fund (Cox vs. Shell Oil) has already spent more than $976 million in funds to unhappy polybutylene homeowners. To be eligible for recovery, a claimant must own or have previously owned a residence or yard service unit plumbed with polybutylene. The poly plumbing or poly yard service line must have been installed between 1/1/78 and 7/31/95 and must have had at least one leak.
Homeowners who purchased homes after September 12, 2005 (or August 12, 2002 in the case of certain counties in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas that were affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita) could be eligible or have the right to exclude themselves from the class action in order to pursue their own damage complaint.
Under the Cox vs. Shell class action, homeowners may qualify for a free plumbing replacement and possible compensation for damages if they file their claims by May 1, 2009. This suit is run by the Consumer Plumbing Recovery Center (CPRC), which is the authorized administrator of the settlement.
Under the terms of the Spencer vs. DuPont Class Action, funds in the amount of $120 million were committed to the settlement. If the funds run out without all the claims being satisfied, claimants have the right to re-file against DuPont for additional money.
Those who qualify under the DuPont class action can be reimbursed for 10 percent of the replacement cost of their plumbing system, plus 10 percent of any past damage caused by leaks that they were not reimbursed for. This applies only if: 1) the system was replaced within 15 years of its installation and 2) if the claimant had poly pipes with acetal fittings. (DuPont manufactured the acetal fittings only and not the polybutylene pipes.) The 15-year limitation does not apply if the home owner acquired his/her property after Nov. 1, 1999 or replaced their plumbing system by Dec. 31, 2003.
Under the DuPont class action it is not necessary to have had a leak, but all the plumbing in the house would have had to be replaced before becoming eligible.
If you did not want to be a party in the Spencer vs. DuPont class action it was necessary that you mailed your ‘opt out’ letter no later than December 1, 2003.
The deadline to file for exclusion in the Cox vs.Shell class action was September 1, 2008.
There are currently no laws specifically regarding the disclosure of polybutylene piping on a property, but some real estate brokers have been sued for not disclosing its presence in residences that they sell.
DuPont quit making its acetal fittings for poly pipes in 1989. As of April, 1996, Shell Chemical Co. stopped supplying polybutylene for U.S. pipes.
In the original polybutylene class action suit (Beeman vs. Shell Oil Co., filed in Texas state court in 1993) a tentative settlement worth a minimum of $750 million was reached, only to be rejected without explanation by a Texas state district judge in February, 1995. The suit was re-filed in Texas federal court in April 1995, and the state court action was dismissed.
Lawyers from other states jumped in at that point and began filing class actions on behalf of their own polybutylene clients.
In the meantime, a proposed settlement was reached in an Alabama case which required DuPont (Spencer vs. DuPont) to pay its consumers eight percent of the cost of property damage and replacement systems — but only if the homeowner paid for their entire system replacement first.
In June, 1995, the Tennessee state court certified Cox vs. Shell Oil as a national class action, combining it with the earlier Texas case of Beeman vs. Shell. In November, 1995, final approval was granted in the settlement — creating over a billion dollars in relief to property owners who experienced leakage.
The Shell class action provides 100 percent compensation for non-reimbursed repair costs and property damages, ensured that class members who suffered just one leak could have their entire system re-plumbed at no cost, offered free re-plumbs up to 16 years after the initial installation, created a special “grace period” for the filing of claims for past property damage and repair costs without regard to the statute of limitations and gave additional relief to class members in special circumstances.
Homeowner’s insurance policy holders are generally covered for the water damage that poly pipe leaks cause to their residence. In certain circumstances the class actions may even assist the policy holder. However, insurance companies may increase the policy holder’s premium after filing a claim (or multiple claims) — or they may opt not to renew the policy.
Although no longer available in the U.S., polybutylene plumbing is still widely used in Europe and Asia.
Since 1996, almost 8,000 people have filed claims with the Spencer vs. DuPont class action, which set aside $120-million for restitution. (To qualify, claimants must first expend their own money to have their poly pipe systems replaced.)
The $1.1 billion Polybutylene Pipe Settlement Fund (Cox vs. Shell) has paid out more than $976 million to poly pipe homeowners. (Under this class action, claimants must have experienced at least one leak in order to qualify.)
Throughout the 1980’s numerous lawsuits were filed complaining of defective polybutylene pipe manufacturing and defective installation causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. Most of these plaintiffs later joined together into two major class actions which have already been settled for more than one billion dollars.