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Polybutylene Pipe

Polybutylene Plumbing Class Action

Michael A. Caddell served as lead counsel in the Polybutylene (PB) plumbing class action. Settled in 1995, this case resulted in over 320,000 homes being completely re-plumbed, repaired, and inspected at no cost to the homeowner.

Polybutylene pipe was developed in the 1970s as a low-cost alternative to metal pipe. Made from a petrochemical refining byproduct, the plastic pipes were marketed as resistant to wear and tear, unaffected by corrosion, and easy to maintain and replace. From 1978 until 1995, several million homes were plumbed with polybutylene.

Unfortunately, it turned out that polybutylene deteriorates and becomes brittle when it comes into contact with chlorine—which is added to the water virtually everywhere in the United States. Pipes and fittings began to fail in thousands of homes, especially in areas with high chlorine levels.

Soon lawsuits were filed against the pipe and fitting manufacturers, many of which exhausted their insurance and in some instances filed for bankruptcy. Tens of millions of dollars in settlements were paid, but more than 50% of every dollar spent was consumed by legal fees and costs, with every home in litigation subject to inspections and homeowners being subjected to interrogatories and depositions. After paying their lawyers and expenses, and after years of litigation, many homeowners were left with barely enough to replace their home plumbing.

In 1993, Caddell teamed up with Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, a non-profit public interest law firm, and filed a national class action in Houston against Shell, Celanese, and DuPont, which sold the petrochemical raw materials used to manufacture polybutylene pipe and plastic pipe fittings. The team negotiated a groundbreaking settlement that was able to completely replumb and repair the homes of every homeowner who qualified.

Caddell served as Chairman of the Board of the Consumer Plumbing Recovery Center, the entity responsible for administering the settlement, which completely replumbed more than 320,000 homes over fifteen years. During that period of court-supervised administration, the court was not required to intervene to settle any disputes. The defendants spend over $1.14 billion in the settlement, with 92% paid directly to homeowner relief and only 8% consumed by administrative costs and attorneys fees. 96% of homeowner reported that they were satisfied with the results.

The final settlement, known as Cox v. Shell, became one of the most successful and largest consumer class action settlements in history, showing the power of class actions to provide relief to hundreds of thousands in an efficient manner.

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