Class Action Dilemmas: Pursuing Public Goals for Private Gain

By Deborah R. Hensler; Nicholas M. Pace et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter Fourteen POLYBUTYLENE PLUMBING PIPES LITIGATION: 1
COX v. SHELL OIL 2

PROLOGUE

Beginning in the late 1970s, polybutylene plastic plumbing systems -- touted as being cheaper and more durable than copper pipe systems -- were installed in new homes nationwide, particularly in the sunbelt states, which were experiencing a housing boom. Over the years, several million homes, many of them mobile homes, were built with polybutylene plumbing systems. 3 Before long, the plumbing systems began to experience failures of the fittings and of the pipe itself. Consumers nationwide attributed the failures to various causes, including inadequate design, defective manufacturing, improper installation, and degradation of the materials from chemicals in the drinking water. 4 More than ten years of litigation, and bankruptcy for one company, would follow, and hundreds of millions of dollars would be spent before reaching a final class action resolution.

In 1977, Shell Oil Company began manufacturing polybutylene resin -- the raw material for the pipes. Until it withdrew the product from the U.S. market in 1996, Shell was the sole manufacturer of polybutylene resin. Shell has continued to manufacture the resin, which has undergone modifications over the years, for overseas sales. Hoechst Celanese Corporation manufactures an acetal compound under the brand name Celcon that, until 1990, was used to manufacture fittings for the plastic plumbing systems. 5 DuPont manufactures a competing acetal product called Delrin that, from 1983 through 1988, was also used for manufacturing fittings. Both Celcon and Delrin were and continue to be used in a wide range of consumer products such as automotive components. United States Brass Corporation bought polybutylene resin from Shell and Celcon from Hoechst Celanese; it then designed and manufactured plumbing systems using the material, which it sold under the Qest brand name. Together, Shell and U.S. Brass conducted an advertising and sales campaign that established the market for the plastic plumbing systems. Vanguard Plastics, a com

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