Fear sells. People will quickly surrender their credit card info for a little peace of mind. And marketers know it. Home water purification system companies use this to their advantage. Unfortunately, some businesses prioritize profits over quality service. The result? Dirtier, hazardous water that can lead to long-term damage to your health and property. Can you sue a water purifier company for improper installation? Here’s a legal perspective for fighting back.
In this Guide:
- The Importance of Proper Water Purifier Installation
- Typical Water Purification Systems and Health Risks
- Legal Rights of Consumers Under Colorado Law
- Establishing Negligence in a Water Purification System Case
- Pursuing Compensation in Colorado
The Importance of Proper Water Purifier Installation
You and your family — including your family pets — depend on the water that comes out of your faucets and shower heads. It should be clean, safe, and pleasant for daily use. You also count on your system to efficiently flush away wastewater. Most of all, you expect it to work without having to worry about it.
If you have to think about it, you’ve got a problem.
The Allure of Home-Purified Water
An increasing number of Coloradans are purchasing sophisticated water treatment systems for their homes. They want water that tastes pure and is free of harmful chemicals and bacteria. They also want softer water, which has less minerals than hard water. Soft water is easier on the skin and doesn’t leave hard-scale buildup in the pipes.
These water purification systems aren’t cheap. They can cost thousands of dollars. If they’re not installed correctly, not only have you poured all that money down the drain, your water is now worse.
Note: As we discuss the dangers of improper water purifier installation and compensation eligibility, I’ll share a real case I handled. I will share it one part at a time, as we discuss the relevant issues. I’ve changed the clients’ names to protect their privacy.
*Past results afford no guarantee of future results; each matter is different and must be judged on its own merits. Facts are those of an actual Robinson & Henry case.
Typical Water Purification Systems and Health Risks
There are six common types of water purification systems you can buy and have installed in your home. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.
Reverse Osmosis (R-O) Water Filters
Reverse Osmosis filters remove almost all impurities — 99 percent — through a semipermeable membrane with microscopic pass-through. These systems are excellent at stopping asbestos, lead, and more than 80 other potential contaminants. However, R-O systems have their drawbacks: They are expensive, require regular maintenance to replace filters and clean the membrane.
Ultraviolet (UV) Water Purifiers
These systems use UV light to destroy microorganisms in the water but do not remove minerals or chemicals. They require less maintenance than RO systems but may not be as effective against larger particles and chemicals.
Water Softening Systems
Water softeners remove calcium and magnesium through ion exchange, resulting in softer sodium particles. Soft water prevents limescale and enhances washing and cooking. However, these systems are costly to install and require significant amounts of water for regeneration. Also, improper settings may remove beneficial minerals, resulting in tasteless, less nourishing water.
Activated Carbon Water Filters
Activated carbon filters remove impurities like chlorine, pesticides, and chemicals using activated carbon. However, they are usually used in combination with other systems.
Distillation Water Systems
A distillation system boils water and then condenses the steam back into liquid form. This removes almost all impurities. Unfortunately, distillation systems are slow and use a lot more energy to work effectively.
Ceramic Water Filters
Ceramic filters are low-cost, low-maintenance options that keep out bacteria and sediment. However, ceramics typically are used as backups for other other systems.Of course, the advantages and disadvantages of each system listed here still assume proper installation. Incorrectly installed purification systems can lead to injuries and damage. In such cases, legal action becomes an option.
Common Problems Following Improper Installation
If you’re considering a home water filtration system, here’s some advice: Insist on having a licensed plumber install it, and that the installation be permitted by the local government authority.
The process of cutting, shaping, and fitting the right pipes is complex. Anyone unfamiliar with your home’s plumbing could multiply your repair costs with one mistake.
Improper installation of water softening or purification systems can lead to various problems, including:
- Back Siphoning: Many of these systems discharge excess water used during the cleaning process. If the system drain is directly connected to the waste water drain, this could result in brown water, and the harmful bacteria within it finding its way up through the discharge and into the home’s fresh water sources. Most building codes and system installation instructions require the use of “air gaps” between the system drain and wastewater drain to prevent back siphoning.
- Ineffective Treatment: Improper installation can compromise water treatment effectiveness, allowing contaminants, hardness minerals, and impurities to persist in the water.
- System Malfunction: A shoddy install can lead to leaks, clogs, and damage to components, impacting performance and lifespan.
- Plumbing Problems: Improper connections, fittings, or modifications to existing plumbing lines may result in leaks, water pressure issues, or damage to pipes and fixtures.
- Wastewater Discharge: Some purification systems generate contaminated wastewater that can be harmful to the environment if not properly discharged. For example, wastewater from reverse osmosis systems and water softeners may contain high levels of salt or other minerals. These are harmful to plant life.
- Electrical Hazards: Many water purification systems require electrical connections. Improper installation can create electrical hazards such as short circuits or even fires.
- Wasted Resources: Improper installation causes inefficient performance and a constant drain on your finances. You could end up using more water, electricity, or chemicals than necessary.
- Health Risks: Instead of safer, cleaner water, you could end up with the opposite. For example, a purification system that is not properly sealed, or lacks one of the important gauges or valves, becomes a breeding ground for bacteria or mold. After you drink it, your body becomes a breeding ground for those impurities.
Hiring an unlicensed plumber to install your purification system and/or not requiring that the work be permitted creates more risks for you.
Health Risks from Contaminated Water
If your water purification system was haphazardly installed, then you do not have a water purification system. You have a gateway for mineral, chemical, bacterial, and viral contaminants that can threaten your short- and long-term health.
Improper water purifier installation brings health risks and illnesses. Here are some potential dangers to consider:
- Bacterial infections: Water contaminated with harmful bacteria, such as E. coli, can cause gastrointestinal illness, fever, and other symptoms.
- Viral infections: Viruses such as norovirus, hepatitis A, and rotavirus can also cause gastroenteritis and hepatitis.
- Chemical poisoning: Without an air gap or certain valves, chemicals and other contaminants in the wastewater can backflow into the water supply. This can result in chemical poisoning and other health problems.
- Parasitic infections: Parasites such as giardia and cryptosporidium can cause diarrhea, stomach cramps, and other gastrointestinal illnesses.
- Airborne Contaminants: Many households use evaporative cooling systems which are connected to the water supply. The water evaporates, but the bacteria does not. It can be breathed in and cause respiratory issues. Also, leaking wastewater creates mold, which releases spores into the air, causing allergic reactions for certain people.
Other Potential Causes of Health Issues with Water Purifiers
Even if your system is set up correctly, there might still be a problem. Some companies exaggerate claims of their water filter’s effectiveness or downplay the importance of routine maintenance.
If your water purification system is properly installed, but still does not work as it should, it could be because of:
- a dirty filter: Chemicals and heavy metals seep through a used-up filter. Maintain or replace filters as recommended.
- mold: This is yet another reason to replace certain filters or tubes. Neglecting cleaning or replacement leads to mold growth.
- clogs: Over time, sediment and other particles accumulate and block the flow of water. This gradually increases pressure on the system until a pipe bursts.
Legal Rights of Consumers under Colorado Law
Colorado law protects consumers who have been harmed by deceptive trade practices. If you purchased a water purification system for your home, and the merchant installed it improperly, you have legal recourse.
This is especially so if a portion of your cost went toward having the company “professionally install” your system.
Colorado Consumer Protection Act
The Colorado Consumer Protection Act (CCPA) is designed to protect consumers from unfair and deceptive business practices. The CCPA says, in a nutshell, is:
- Any person who has been injured by deceptive trade practices may bring a civil action against the person who engaged in or caused the deceptive practice.
- The injured person may be a consumer, a successor in interest (e.g. an heir), or a businessperson.
- The person who engaged in deceptive trade practices is liable for the greater of actual damages or $500, and three times the actual damages if they acted in bad faith.
- The prevailing party in such an action is also entitled to costs and attorney fees. However, if the action is found to be frivolous or groundless, the person who brought the action may be liable for costs and attorney fees.— Colorado Revised Statute 6-1-113 Colorado Consumer Protection Act
Bringing Legal Action Under CCPA
A successful claim against a water purification company under the Colorado Consumer Protection Act must establish the following:
- that the company engaged in an unfair or deceptive trade practice;
- the challenged practice occurred in the course of the company’s business, vocation, or occupation;
- it significantly impacts the public as actual or potential customers of the company’s goods, services, or property; and
- you (the plaintiff) suffered injury in fact to a legally protected interest; and
- the challenged practice caused (your) injury.
Under the CCPA, a water purification company that misrepresents the competency and training of its installers to install whole-home systems or fails to obtain necessary permitting, deceives its customers. This practice often violates state standards requiring either the homeowner or the installer to first obtain a proper permit.
Some water purification companies prey on their customers’ unfamiliarity with water treatment systems. Offering to install the system so the customer doesn’t have to is one of their biggest selling points. Rushed and unprofessional installations lead to compromised quality.
Establishing Liability in a Water Purification System Case
Here’s the scenario: You invested thousands of dollars in a system to improve your home’s water. Now it’s worse. You and your family keep getting sick. The water smells bad, tastes bad, and leaves stains in your sinks and toilets. Not only have you lost money on the system, you are worried about your family’s long-term health, not to mention the expense of undoing all the damage. It’s a mess. You’re not a water treatment expert. You trusted these people.
Proving Improper Water Purification System Installation
If you are like most of my clients, you’re not a water treatment expert. You simply purchased an in-home purifier you hoped would make your water cleaner. How are you supposed to know, much less prove, your system isn’t set up right?
How to Tell if Your Purifier or Softener was Improperly Installed
There are signs you can look for. If you spot any of the following indicators, then your system might have been improperly installed.
However, to be certain, you should contact a licensed plumber, engineer and/or an industrial hygienist to inspect and test your system.
The first sign of an improperly installed water purification system is bad water. After all, a proper system should deliver, as promised, healthy and good-tasting water.
You don’t have to be a water treatment expert to suspect your water isn’t up to par. Your nose and your eyes will tell you plenty. For example:
- A sulfurous or unpleasant sewer odor whenever you turn on the faucet could mean that bacteria is your water.
- If your water tastes bad, that’s a sign your system is not working as it should.
- Returning home after a few days and seeing cloudy, or yellowish water from your faucet indicates bacterial buildup in the system.
Low water pressure is a sign that your filtration system is not working like it should. A weak flow from faucets or showers indicates a possible clog or leak within the system.
Improper installation could be the culprit, but it’s also likely that the filters are in need of maintenance.
Abnormally High Water Bill
Depending on the system, you might have been told to expect slightly higher, or lower, water bills. However, if your bills are much higher than expected, your system may not be operating efficiently. This could be the result of poor or incorrect installation.
Scale Buildup in Pipes and Fixtures
Many home water purification systems rely on small amounts of chemicals to purify the water. If a system is working as it should, the chemicals should get washed away in the refuse. Any sign of scale buildup — calcified or rust-like growths — on faucets or in pipes, indicates something is wrong. Chemicals may be getting into the main water supply.
Inconsistent Hot Water
This applies specifically to systems which are connected to the home’s hot water heater. Many are installed there. If certain faucets in the home stop getting hot water, or don’t get it reliably, there may be a clog inside the hot water heater, which is a symptom of an improperly installed purification system.
One reliable sign of shoddy installation is a leak. There’s no excuse for leaking water, which can result in water damage, mold growth, and other problems.
Other Possible Installation Errors
Failure to include an air gap is just one sign of an improperly installed water purification system. Here are five more signs to look out for:
- Awkward positioning: If your water treatment system has been installed near your home’s water heater, make sure there is enough space. If the tanks and equipment are jumbled too close together, you might have a problem.
- Extension cords: You don’t want to see an extension cord connected to any part of your water purification system. Extension cords are not intended for long-term use, especially around water. Make sure you have permanent wiring instead. Call a qualified electrician if your system depends on extension cords.
- Ill-fitting fasteners: Incorrectly sized fasteners can lead to leaks and system damage. Optimal performance requires that fasteners are the appropriate size for the system.
- Ill-fitting seals and O-rings: Most systems, especially reverse osmosis and UV systems, use O-rings, rubber gaskets, and other seals in the filter housing area. Make sure these rubber seals are installed and fitted neatly. If any are loose or improperly fitted, they could be affecting your water quality.
- Strange Noises: You might not know how a water treatment system is supposed to sound. However, if your system sounds like it’s jammed, straining, or underperforming, have it inspected at once.These are only indicators you can look for, especially if you suspect that your treated water is contaminated. The lack of an air gap is pretty obvious — especially if any tube from your purification system is in contact with a ‘bad water’ line.
Nevertheless, make sure to have your system inspected by a licensed plumber before moving forward with legal action. You’ll need at least one expert witness.
Proving Improper Installation
Visual documentation is the best way to prove that your home water purifier system was installed improperly. Visual evidence can include:
- Photos (as used above)
- An instruction manual with step-by-step instructions for proper installation
Witness testimony is also helpful, especially if it’s from a licensed plumber or water treatment professional who speaks from experience.
The Role of Expert Witnesses
Expert witnesses are vital to any personal injury case. Because water purification is such a specialized field, these witnesses are integral to your matter.
An expert witness is any professional with specialized knowledge, training, and experience in a relevant field. They provide informed, objective opinions and viewpoints that can aid in proving liability and damages.
Experts Commonly Used in Water Purification Injury Cases
Doctors and Medical Professionals
Medical experts clarify and lend credibility to the link between contaminated water and all manner of infections and health problems. They can also highlight the extent of each family member’s illness and any complications that could prevent a full recovery.
Their testimony is crucial to establish actual damages.
Industrial Hygienists, Chemists and Chemical Engineers
These experts can test your home’s water supply and analyze the data. They determine if your water poses a health risk due to bacteria or chemicals. They can explain how chemicals like sodium or chlorine treat water and describe the consequences of excessive amounts in your home supply.
For example, overexposure to chlorine can lead to respiratory problems, skin irritation, and other health issues.
Licensed Plumbers and Water Treatment Professionals
These experts highlight the contrast between correct and improper installation of water purification systems. To challenge this, the defendant company must prove licensed installation and then explain why they deviated from the manual.
Contractors, Renovators, and Landscapers
Contaminated water damages pipes, fixtures, landscaping, and entire rooms of a house. Your compensation should cover all repairs or replacements. These professionals will inspect your property, then evaluate and calculate restoration costs.
Another Colorado Case: Cattaneo v. Aquakleen Products (5)
Nick and Roxanne Cattaneo of Commerce City purchased a water refinement system from AquaKleen Products, Inc. The company sent an unlicensed plumber to install it. Within a short time, the family began to notice that the water “smelled like feces.” They complained to AquaKleen.
First, the company sent a salesperson to investigate the foul-smelling water. The salesperson agreed to test a sample, then called the family a day later to tell them their water was fine. It didn’t smell fine. It still tasted awful. Soon, family members began to suffer various illnesses. However, AquaKleen continued to dismiss their concerns. Nick was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, a severe inflammation of the bowels likely caused by ingesting contaminated water.
The family continued to drink, cook with, and bathe in the water for 18 months. Finally, a licensed plumber discovered the problem. The water purification system had been connected to one of the home’s sewer pipes, and was sucking raw sewage into their water supply.
The Cattaneos sued.
The Cattaneos — now plaintiffs — filed suit against AquaKleen claiming negligence, negligence per se, negligent hiring and training, deceptive trade practices, and outrageous conduct.
AquaKleen filed a motion to dismiss all claims and asserted 31 separate defenses. The company claimed it couldn’t be held liable for the improper installation of its system since its workers were “independent contractors.” The company also claimed that the family could not prove its illnesses had been caused by ingesting watered-down sewage for 18 months.
AquaKleen then tried to bar testimony by the plaintiffs’ toxicology expert, Dr. Steven Pike, claiming it was inadmissible.
The Case Goes Forward
Although some of the Cattaneos’ claims were dismissed over legal technicalities, the bulk of their case moved forward. That was bad news for AquaKleen.
A district court judge ruled that the company’s independent contractors defense was meaningless. AquaKleen still exercised “supervision and control” over their unlicensed workers. This included sending them out, in company vests and vehicles, to sell and install their systems.
As for the claims of outrageous conduct, the district court judge had this to say:
“If AquaKleen knowingly or recklessly sent an unqualified person to inspect and investigate, and
- if that person knowingly or recklessly misrepresented that she or someone else at AquaKleen had tested the water for the presence of contaminants, and
- if AquaKleen knowingly or recklessly failed to follow-up when more complaints were made and determine whether the water had been [*11] properly sampled and tested, and
- failed or refused to take another sample and have the sample re-tested, and
- if as a result the Cattaneos were needlessly exposed to sewage-contaminated water for several additional months, and further
- if they or any of them sustained severe emotional distress damages as a result of the additional exposure, then a rational jury could find in plaintiffs’ favor on this claim.
That is a lot of “if’s.” However, on a motion for summary judgment, the Court construes the evidence and draws inferences in plaintiffs’ favor.”
— Cattaneo v. AquaKleen Products (District Court, Colo. Aug. 31, 2012)
Judgment and Aftermath
In October of 2012, a jury awarded the Cattaneos nearly $1 million dollars in damages. For AquaKleen, that wasn’t the worst of it.
AquaKleen had prepared a defense claiming that the Cattaneos’ troubles were an isolated incident. Hoping to bolster that claim, the company inspected 58 of their own water filtration systems in Commerce City. All 58 had been improperly installed, and 20 had been hooked up to sewer lines — just like the Cattaneos’ system.
South Adams Water and Sanitation sent AquaKleen a notice stating that it never issued the company a permit to install its systems in Commerce City. It asked how many more homes AquaKleen had illegally installed its systems.
The company was forced to admit it had installed its system in 150 homes — in Commerce City alone.
Pursuing Compensation in Colorado
Improperly installed water purification systems can cause extensive damage. Fortunately, successful lawsuits in these matters can result in substantial settlements and jury awards.
However, taking legal action against a wealthy water filtration company is challenging. These defendants typically have formidable law firms aiming to overwhelm and intimidate the plaintiff. Remember, in the Cattaneo case, AquaKleen’s attorneys presented 31 separate defenses.
Therefore, it is crucial to secure a no-nonsense personal injury lawyer.
Working with a Colorado Personal Injury Attorney
A personal injury attorney does more than file paperwork and argue on your behalf. Their experience in cases like yours helps navigate the tedious legal process while ensuring your rights are protected.
Your attorney is also invaluable as:
- An advocate: Lawsuits are stressful. However, your stress started the moment you realized your “pure” water smells rotten. You need more than legal advice at this point. You need someone who will listen, counsel, and reassure you.
- A Detective: Do not underestimate the fact-gathering prowess of a seasoned pro with the power of subpoena. Your attorney orders inspections, tracks down experts and witnesses, and can pull records — including product designs, employee records, financial reports, emails and text messages — from the at-fault party.
- Leverage: Some negligent companies try to avoid accountability by blowing off their customers’ concerns. Once you’ve retained a lawyer, they are much more keen to negotiate.
- A Negotiator: Your lawyer will fight tirelessly to get maximum compensation for your injuries, damages, and financial loss. These companies and their insurers want to limit how much they’ll pay.
Colorado Personal Injury Damages and Compensation
A plaintiff who succeeds in a jury trial can be awarded three types of damages: Economic, non-economic, and exemplary (punitive) damages.
If a case settles before going to trial, the water purification company only compensates for economic and non-economic damages.
Economic damages are the measurable financial losses incurred as a result of an injury, or negligence. They are meant to compensate the injured party for actual monetary expenses, which may include:
- Medical Expenses: This includes the costs of:
- medical treatment,
- hospital stays,
- rehabilitation, and
- any future medical care related to any injury or long-term illness.
- Lost Wages: This covers you or your spouse if either of you were unable to work due to prolonged or repeated illness. You could be entitled to compensation for wages lost during the recovery period.
- Property Damage: This is significant. An improperly installed water purification system can cause tremendous property damage. Plumbing usually needs to be ripped out and replaced. Entire bathrooms and kitchens could need renovating. There also could be flooding or water damage. Landscaping can be ruined by toxic water in the soil.
Calculating Economic Damages
The sum total of all monetary costs — whether already billed or estimated — is the amount of economic damages. For example: If your family incurred $14,000 in medical expenses, $10,000 in lost wages, and $240,000 in property damage, then economic damages would total $264,000.
Non-economic damages, on the other hand, are subjective and more challenging to quantify. That does not mean they are insignificant. This portion of the award or settlement compensates for intangible losses that do not have a direct monetary value. Non-economic damages may include:
- Pain and Suffering: This includes the physical and emotional pain, anxiety, and discomfort experienced from living in a home with contaminated water.
- Emotional Distress: Egregious or outrageous behavior by the negligent company can cause significant mental trauma. Compensation may be provided for the resulting distress, anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Caps on Non-Economic Damages
Colorado imposes certain caps on the amount of non-economic damages that can be awarded in personal injury cases. These limitations can vary depending on the specific circumstances of the case, such as the type of defendant or the nature of the injury. The current cap for non-economic damages is $613,760.
Colorado law entitles plaintiffs to additional money if their injuries were the result of “fraud, malice, or willful, wanton misconduct.” — Colo. Rev. Stat. 13-21-102(1) (b)
This is not compensation, but an extra measure to punish, or make an example of, the defendant who caused the harm. This is why it is more commonly known as punitive damages.
Calculating Exemplary Damages
The total amount of exemplary damages depends on the facts of the specific case. However, Colorado law typically caps this amount so it does not exceed actual or compensatory damages.
In rare cases, the court can exceed compensatory damages by a multiple of three. This, however, is reserved for when the defendant’s behavior has been particularly outrageous — which is always a possibility in water purification systems cases involving fraud.
Statute of Limitations
You have a limited time to file a civil action, regardless of the severity of the injury. A statute of limitations establishes the timeframe when an injured party can pursue action against the responsible party.
Statutes of limitations serve two purposes:
- to preserve evidence and witness testimony, and
- to ensure fairness to potential defendants who should not have to defend against old claims.
You must file your claim within two years of becoming aware of your injury. If you try to file a lawsuit beyond the allotted amount of time, your case could get dismissed.
In Colorado, the statute of limitations for personal injury lawsuits is generally two years — C.R.S. 13-80-102(a).
Contact a Colorado Contaminated Water Attorney
It’s distressing living in a home with foul, contaminated water — especially when you’ve paid for a system that is supposed to make your water cleaner and softer. If you’ve recently had a filtration system installed, check it out to make sure you have an air gap. And if your water seems worse, don’t ignore it. The experienced personal injury attorneys at Robinson and Henry can get you the compensation — and clean water — you deserve. We are eager to help. Call 303-688-0944 for your free case assessment.