PORTLAND – For more than a year, Theodore and Stacey Sawyer drank uranium-contaminated water, unaware that their water treatment system salesman had doctored the lab report that would have alerted them to the unsafe level of the heavy metal in their well water.

The salesman was convicted of mail fraud in the case last year, and now the Naples couple is suing the manufacturer of the treatment system and the franchisee that sold it to them.

The Sawyers’ accusations against Culligan International Co. and Yarmouth-based Water Treatment Equipment, Inc. include violation of the state’s Unfair Trade Practices Act, fraud, negligence, infliction of emotional distress, battery and breach of warranty. The Sawyers are seeking unspecified damages for emotional distress, the cost of medical monitoring and the decrease in their home’s value. The lawsuit was filed in Cumberland County Superior Court earlier this month.

According to their complaint, the Sawyers have suffered from severe anxiety and major depression and face a greater risk of illness from drinking the uranium-contaminated water. Both require monitoring by nephrologists and cancer specialists, according to their complaint prepared by Jeffrey Talbert, a Portland-based environmental lawyer.

The Sawyers argue that the water treatment system was defective or posed a danger to them. Their other allegations include that the defendants failed to warn them of the hazards of the system and did not property supervise employees or franchisees.

Elizabeth Germani, the lawyer for Water Treatment Equipment, said the company had no reason to suspect salesman Daryl Quinn of wrongdoing. She said the family-owned business terminated Quinn, who had been a trusted employee, as soon as the incident came to light.

“Water Treatment Equipment has been around for decades, has been around for a really, really long time. They were shocked by what happened here,” Germani said.

Culligan spokesman Eric Rosenthal said the Illinois-based company does not comment on pending litigation.

In 2005, Stacey Sawyer took a urine test to determine the cause of dizziness and other health problems she was having. The test found high levels of uranium in her urine, and her doctor recommended that the Sawyers test their well. It turned out to have nearly six times the acceptable safe limit.

Uranium is naturally occurring and can enter groundwater from bedrock containing the heavy metal. Elevated levels of uranium from any source can increase the risk of kidney damage, and drinking uranium-contaminated water over time can increase a person’s estimated lifetime risk of cancer, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Sawyers relied on bottled water for drinking and cooking until after they bought the water treatment system in April 2008. According to their lawsuit, Water Treatment Equipment advised them not to drink water from their well until tests showed the uranium levels were safe. The company told them in June that the lab results showed the water was safe. The Sawyers asked for a copy of the report and filed it away.

The following summer, Stacey Sawyer was looking at various pieces of paperwork while preparing to sell the house. She noticed something strange about the “satisfactory” notation under the uranium category in the lab report. It turned out that the salesman, Quinn, had covered up the “un” in “unsatisfactory.” A new water sample taken that summer showed the uranium level had increased to more than seven times the acceptable amount since the 2007 test.

Quinn pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud, a felony, for sending the Sawyers the falsified report. He was sentenced last year to three years of probation, fined $3,500 and ordered to pay restitution of $950 — the cost of the system — to the Sawyers.

At Quinn’s sentencing hearing in November 2010, Assistant U.S. Attorney Halsey Frank said Quinn was being lazy in his dealings with the Sawyers. At the time, Quinn was making about $41,000 a year in commissions.

“I don’t completely understand the explanation,” Frank said, according to a transcript of the hearing. “But he just wanted to be done with the Sawyers, was tired of dealing with them.”

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at:

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