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Lawyers sort out details in pipe suit

Have leaky pipes?

You may be entitled to a piece of a $750-million lawsuit settlement.

As a matter of fact, you may be entitled to part of the settlement even if your pipes don't leak.

Three of the nation's biggest chemical companies, Hoechst Celanese Corp. Shell Oil Co. and Du Pont Co. agreed Monday to pay $750-million to settle a suit alleging their chemicals caused leaks in plastic pipes installed in millions of homes.

Owners and renters of an estimated 6-million to 9-million houses, mobile homes, apartments and condominiums could be in line for free plumbing work plus reimbursement for leak damages if a Houston judge approves the settlement. Most of the affected structures are in Sun Belt states, including Florida.

Filed in 1993 by a public interest group called Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, the settlement is reportedly the largest property damage class-action settlement in U.S. history.

"This will also be the biggest campaign in history to notify possible victims," said Mary A. Parker, a Nashville, Tenn., lawyer and president of the trial lawyers group. "There is absolutely no negative side for the plaintiffs."

Exactly who qualifies under the class is tough to determine. The lawyers group and the chemical companies will be working with home builders and building materials suppliers to establish exactly where the pipes were installed.

The class will include every homeowner or renter with a home built since 1978 that has plastic plumbing containing the chemical polybutylene.

Most of the homes containing the pipes were built in the South, spreading from Florida to California, according to Mike Caddell of Houston, the lead attorney in the case.

"Florida, I would guess, along with Texas, California and Georgia could very easily be the states that have the largest concentration of polybutylene plumbing systems," Caddell said. That's because the systems were most popular in the Sun Belt, and because the region led the nation in home building during the 1980s, he said.

The faulty pipes are typically gray or black in color, Caddell said. They have the initials PB stamped somewhere on them. They were sold under the names Vanguard, Qest, SG and Safeguard, among others, he said.

Homeowners and renters who think they have the faulty pipes can call Caddell's office at (800) 721-0400 for more details. But Caddell said they would be better off waiting until his group and the three chemical companies place advertisements announcing the terms of the settlement and to whom it applies. The ads will probably run a few months after a judge's approval, which Caddell expects sometime in December.

If a home contains the pipes and they leak, the homeowner or renter will be entitled to a free replacement of their plumbing system, plus any damages.

If a home contains the pipes but they don't leak, the owner will be given a warranty good for replacement and damages if a leak develops within a certain number of years.

Mobile-home owners will be entitled to part of the settlement if their pipes leak within 10 years after installation. Homeowners and renters of houses, apartments and condominiums will be entitled to part of the settlement if their pipes leak within 15 years of the installation date.