A judge in the Superior Court of California has denied a motion for summary judgment in the lawsuit by U.S. Water Products Inc. of Carlsbad, Calif., against Modified Plastics Inc., a custom compounder in Santa Ana, Calif. In denying the motion July 16, Judge Barbara Lane found breach of contract and breach of warranty.
A trial date has been set for March 10.
The 3-year-old lawsuit involves a product failure - specifically, whether it was caused by poor design or by the use of inadequate raw material.
U.S. Water Products makes injection molded housings for in-home water-filtration systems. The specified material for the housings is 25 percent talc-filled polypropylene.
The company originally had its material supplied by Polifil Inc., which is headquartered in Woonsocket, R.I., but Modified Plastics came in with a bid to supply the compounded resin that ``substantially undercut'' Polifil's price, according to Garland Bell, U.S. Water Products' lawyer in Pasadena, Calif.
The firm switched suppliers and produced 400,000 units, 169,000 in colors and the rest in white. Before long, U.S. Water began receiving complaints of failures of the housings, which caused the units to leak water, sometimes resulting in flooding.
In the meantime, Bell said, Polymerland Inc. of Parkersburg, W.Va., came along and wanted U.S. Water Products' business. But Polymerland officials could not understand how U.S. Water got the materials specified at such a low price, so the company sent a housing to a laboratory to have the material analyzed.
They found that instead of using the specified talc filler, the housings contained calcium carbonate, a less costly substitute that U.S. Water Products said could not provide the same toughness qualities as the talc.
U.S. Water then had nine of the housings analyzed and found that the ingredients varied widely, showing an inconsistency in the compounding. The result, said Bell, was that ``we were getting a 20 percent to 40 percent drop in tensile strength on the housings.''
Burst tests showed the units failing at pressures of 240 pounds per square inch instead of the required 450 psi.
To date, U.S. Water Products has racked up nearly a half-million dollars in damage claims from failed water filtration units, according to the company.
``We believe that we'll have to do a recall that could cost U.S. Water Products as much as $16 million,'' Bell said.
Attillio Giovanatto, lawyer for Modified Plastics, takes issue with U.S. Water Product's failure figures, and said that records indicate that only 40 failures have been reported.
He said his clients contend the units' failures are due to design problems, namely the product's wall sections are too thin.
Experts for the defense filed depositions stating the talc and calcium carbonate compounds are so similar they can be used for many of the same applications. In addition to Modified Plastics, defendants include colorant provider Color Science Inc. of Santa Ana; additive supplier Dorsett & Jackson Inc. of Los Angeles; and former resin distributor Fiberchem Inc. of Kent, Wash. Fiberchem is now part of M.A. Hanna Co. of Cleveland.
``There's no evidence to date that even suggests the use of calcium carbonate has caused the products' failures,'' Giovanatto said.
Giovanatto said Modified Plastics was operating under the assumption that Vicron 45-3 was talc, based on information it got from the additive supplier.
``We were operating under an honest mistake,'' he said. ``There's no evidence of fraud or that we tried to hide the fact that [Modified Plastics] used the Vicron 45-3.''