*CASE STUDY: Illness and Property Loss from Improperly Installed Water Softener

By: Robinson & Henry, Attorneys At Law
PublishedAug 22, 2023
6 minute read

Many Coloradans are buying sophisticated, and quite expensive, home water purification systems. These purifiers can provide better-tasting water and remove certain minerals that make water hard. Sounds great, right? But there can be severe consequences if the system isn’t installed properly. Unfortunately, numerous Colorado families are finding this out the hard way, including Robinson & Henry clients Kara Lawrence and her entire household.

In this case study, we reveal the hard truth about what can happen when companies don’t follow a product’s instructions — and how we recovered the money necessary to help the Lawrences begin to put their lives (and their home) back together.

Read our legal guide to learn more about the importance of proper water softener installation and what to do if you think yours is making you sick.

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.

Is your water softener making you sick like it did our clients?

A Chance Encounter Leads to Illness & Major Loss

“We had never really known about water softening systems,” said Kara Lawrence. “[My husband and I] were actually approached by a salesperson at [a big box home and garden store].”

The company offered to come check the couple’s home for hard water.

The Lawrences had recently purchased the home, which already had a reverse osmosis drinking water system. But Kara said they were open to a free water testing from the water softening company.

Initially, the couple said there weren’t any red flags.

When the company salesperson came out to test for hard water, he noted the Lawrences’ water was really bad. Hard water is high in mineral content. It’s what causes limescale buildup on shower-heads and faucets. It can also contribute to people using more shampoo, body wash, and detergents because the soap doesn’t lather very well.

That was a hook the salesman used with the Lawrences. He touted all the money they could save if they had soft water. And to sweeten the deal, the salesman would throw in a five-year supply of soap, which he claimed would nearly pay for the softener system.

Kara recalled the salesman saying “And we’ll only give it to you if [you] sign up today.”

So, they did. The price tag: about $8,000.

“We went ahead with it. We thought that we would have cleaner water, use less household products, and benefit from the sale of the house down the road,” said Kara.

Boy, were they wrong.

Unaware of the Improperly Installed Water Softener

When the day arrived for the water softener to be installed, the Lawrences were blissfully unaware of all of the problems that would beset them in just a matter of weeks.

What the family did not know was the worker who put in the water softening system was not a licensed plumber (at least at the time of the installation) or licensed to install water conditioning systems. The company also failed to obtain the required permits from the local building department.

Worst of all, the Lawrences had no idea that the “plumber” had improperly installed the water softener system — flouting local codes and even disregarding the equipment’s installation manual.

A Slew of Problems

In the days after the water softener’s installation, the Lawrences noticed odd changes around the house.

“The water didn’t feel right when we had showers within the first week,” said Kara. “The second week, the sink got clogged up, and the line needed to be snaked to clear it out.”

Within three weeks of having the water softener, the family began to get sick.

Isaac had coughing fits and couldn’t breathe well. Kara suffered similar respiratory problems and various gastrointestinal issues. The couple’s children experienced numerous health problems from skin infections to a serious gastrointestinal disease.

As the family battled the unexpected illnesses, they were blindsided by the death of two of their dogs. When the second dog passed away, Kara requested a necropsy, an animal autopsy.

“There were high levels of sodium in the toxicology results,” said Kara.

But from what? The Lawrences had no idea.

Kara was also baffled by strange recurring phenomena around their home:

  • their laundry smelled like sewage
  • a freshly cleaned toilet grew mold within a matter of days
  • the landscaping was dying

It would take a while, but the Lawrences would discover the water softener system was to blame for everything.

How Water Softeners Work

Water that comes into your home has picked up naturally occurring minerals from the earth, like calcium and magnesium. Too much of these minerals in the water makes it hard.

Most water softener systems operate the same way and use two tanks: a mineral tank and a brine (salt water) tank.

When hard water from the water line goes into the mineral tank, calcium and magnesium attach to tiny beads. This removes the hard minerals from the water, and soft water goes into the home.

After a while, the calcium and magnesium build up on those little beads, and it needs to be removed. That’s done by flushing the mineral tank with strong salt water from the brine tank. The salt water cleans the beads of the hard minerals and they and the brine go down a nearby drain.

Then the softening process begins again.

In the case of the Lawrences, the water softener company’s workers failed to use what’s called an air gap. Here’s what one looks like:

Water softener line with a one-and-a-half inch air gap above drain in floor.
Photo credit: Reuben Saltzman, www.structuretech.com

Air gaps prevent drinking water from being contaminated with waste water due to backflow or back siphoning. Simple and effective, air gaps are considered the gold standard in water contamination prevention in plumbing.

Unfortunately, the major installation misstep at the Lawrences’ home resulted in back siphoning and introduced contaminated wastewater, infused with excess sodium and bacteria, into the family’s water supply.

The Lawrences Decide to Fight Back

Colorado law limits how long one can file a personal injury claim, and the family was up against the clock. Initially, the Lawrences decided to take on the case themselves, called pro se in the legal world. But they soon discovered they were in over their heads.

Kara recalled the judge telling them, “There’s no way you’ll win this without an attorney.”

The Lawrences received an extension to give them time to retain a lawyer. But all of the firms Kara reached out to rejected their case.

“Some wouldn’t take it because there wasn’t a death involved,” she remembered.

Then Kara came across Robinson & Henry, and, eventually, the Lawrences were paired with Personal Injury Attorney Jon Topolewski.

“It was basically a breath of fresh air to have someone strong enough to talk to the [opposing counsel],” Kara said. “Jon came in and he just immediately amended the complaint and got meetings going with the other side. We finally felt like we had someone to listen to us and speak for us.”

What Our Experts Confirmed

Jon and his team hired various experts to evaluate the water softener’s installation, the water supply, and the health effects of any potential contamination. Here’s what they found:

The tests showed off-the-chart levels of endotoxins. Basically, endotoxins are the skeletons of bad bacteria.

The medical doctor validated what we suspected: this level of bacteria would definitely cause health issues with the family and their beloved pets.

R&H Brought Claims Against the Water Softener Company

As Kara mentioned, Jon amended the lawsuit against the water softener company to include the following claims:

  • Breach of Contract
  • Negligence
  • Negligent Misrepresentation
  • Breach of the Colorado Consumer Protection Act

Jon also filed a motion to request exemplary damages on behalf of the Lawrences. Commonly called “punitive damages,” exemplary damages are meant to punish a defendant for their “willful and wonton conduct” that causes harm. Colo. Rev. Stat. 13-21-102(1) (b)

The Cost of Cutting Corners

Kara couldn’t believe the amount of damage contaminated water could inflict on her family and her home: more than $100,000.

“Everything that the water has touched has to be replaced,” she said.

The landscaping was ruined. All three of their bathrooms had to be gutted; all because the water softener company decided an air gap was unnecessary.

“[The house] has been vacant for a year,” she said. “And there’s still a ton of work that needs to be done.”

How much does it take to put in an air gap? You can get all the parts you need at a local hardware store or online for less than $50.

The Water Softener Company Settled

Once Robinson & Henry took up the Lawrences’ case, the water softener company knew it was fighting a losing battle. Ultimately, it decided to settle the lawsuit instead of going to trial.

The exact amount the Lawrences agreed to is confidential, but we can say it was enough for the family to rebuild the house’s entire plumbing system, renovate three bathrooms, replace ruined landscaping, and pay off their medical expenses. They also received a tidy sum to compensate for their 18 months of pain and suffering.

“We are just very grateful,” Kara said. “At some point, there’s no money that will make up for things that happen to people.”

The Lawrences Weren’t the Only Victims

As it turns out, the Lawrences’ aren’t the only ones affected by this type of improper installation. If you suspect you’re one of them, Jon recommends proceeding directly with a lawsuit.

Kara couldn’t agree more, “Don’t give up, because people need to be held responsible for blatantly disregarding permits and local laws.”

“You just have to keep pushing. Call R&H. Call the big dogs,” Kara said.

Have You Been Harmed by a Poorly Installed Water Softener?

If so, time is likely not on your side. State law limits how long you can bring a civil action against the party responsible for harming you. So, if you believe your water softener was improperly installed and is making you sick, reach out to a personal injury attorney immediately. They can connect you with the appropriate experts who can help you get answers, and, if necessary, they’ll file a suit on your behalf. If you’d like to talk to Jon’s team about your case, call 303-688-0944 to begin your case assessment. If you would like more information on suing a company for faulty water purifier installation check out our full legal guide, Can You Sue a Water Purifier Company for Improper Installation? A Legal Perspective in Colorado.”

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.

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