Attorney finds niche in helping those with bad windows
By Arthur Lightbourn
When it rains buckets in Southern California, as it did this past winter, consumer attorney Scott Levine gets busy.
The Carmel Valley resident specializes in representing homeowners who allege their homes were water damaged due to defective windows, especially vinyl-framed windows joined together to make large scenic windows.
Historically, homeowners seeking legal redress could sue whomever they thought was responsible for the defective windows, typically, the builder/developer or the window manufacture.
But the problem was choosing the right party to sue, and proving that party was totally at fault. As a result, even if and when the homeowners won, any recovery was generally small and hardly worth the legal effort.
Under California’s new Construction Defect Law — which Levine helped to negotiate in 2002, with further revisions in 2003 — he was able to develop an innovative way to recover damages for his clients by going after the defective windows’ complete chain of distribution, including the window manufacturer, the manufacturer of the vinyl used to encase the windows, the window supplier/installer, as well as the builder/developer.
“When a defective product is put into the stream of commerce,” Levine explained, “all commercial entities placing a product in that stream are strictly liable to the consumer/homeowner. Strict liability is liability without proof of fault. The law provides that the commercial entities in the stream can fight amongst themselves who is at fault, but for the homeowner consumer, they may collect their damages from any or all of the commercial entities in the stream.”
He has represented homeowners and associations in construction defect cases since 1991 and is the current president of the Consumer Attorneys of San Diego (CASD). Consumer attorneys are also called trial lawyers. He is also on the board of governors of Consumer Attorneys of California.
He recently resolved what may be the largest window settlement in California (on an amount per house basis) days before trial was set to begin. The settlement figure is confidential at the request of the defendants.
We interviewed Levine early one morning last week before he headed off to work at his UTC office where he is a partner and one of four attorneys with the civil litigation firm of Silldorf & Levine, LLP.
A former triathlete, Levine, now 44, limits himself these days to running four to five miles, three to five days a week. He’s 5-foot-8 and reluctantly admits to being 205 pounds, due to the fact that, he laughs, “I like to eat.”
Levine was born in Detroit and was raised, from the time he was a year old, in Phoenix, Arizona. He has one younger brother. His father was a general practice attorney.
He met his future wife, Amy (nee Koo), while both were undergraduates at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He earned a bachelor of science degree in economics with an emphasis on accounting there in 1988 and went get his law degree from California Western School of Law in 1991.
Asked how he got into what has become a niche specialty, he said, “About four or five years ago, I was brought into a case involving a large group of homeowners up on the [Del Mar] mesa and they had big painted vinyl [framed] windows. The vinyl windows were all bowing and warping and leaking.”
Launching an Erin Brockovich-style investigation, Levine made repeated trips over a period of six months to Washington state to take depositions from plant managers, executives and sale representatives employed by the two main window manufacturers.
Were they cooperative?
“No,” Levine said. “Not at all.
“I kept asking questions. Part of the discovery process is taking depositions. So I would keep asking questions of different people. Everybody they would give me was a 20-plus year employee of the extrusion company. And they weren’t talking. Some of them were flat out lying to me.”
“Finally I got some other witnesses who were related, but unrelated, to the company, not insiders of the company, and they told me the parts that I needed to know.”
Under the strict liability provision in the law, Levine had to establish a link between the top and the bottom of the chain.
“I started digging and digging into the product, and its design and manufacture, and discovered that there were design and manufacturing defects. ... I don’t think anybody was really going up to the top of the chain before I started doing that about four years ago.
“What I was trying to do was link the extrusion company (that produced the vinyl) to the (window) manufacturer. As you get higher up the chain, you have a deeper pocket you can recover from. The extruder was a Fortune 500 company and the manufacturer that they had manufacture the windows was a mom and pop company.
“And if I hit them (the mom-and-pop window manufacturer) with a multiple million dollar judgment and their insurance company decides they don’t want to pay the judgment, then I’ve got a mom and pop company that I’m going to put out of business, which isn’t really what I’m trying to do.
“What I’m trying to do is amass as much money as I can from all the parties who are responsible so my clients can fix the problems that they have in their houses.”
So far, Levine has taken on “at least a half dozen” cases involving defective windows and has resolved four of the cases, out-of-court, with substantial settlements for some 70 Carmel Valley homeowners.
“Typically, in today’s construction defect cases,’ he said, “average per-unit settlements range from $8,000 to $15,000 per home. All of our defective window cases have been in the six figures results per unit ... and when you’re getting into six figures you’re hitting a home run for your clients.”
“In a lot of these window cases, we are finding that where you have multiple windows joined together (called mulled windows) ... typically where the windows are joined together, there is a failure and water gets in.
“In the window industry, there’s a testing protocol for a single window,” he said, “but there is no testing protocol for a multiple window.”
Most recently, Levine filed a complaint in San Diego County Superior Court on behalf of homeowners in Carmel Valley’s Meadows Del Mar against Davidson Communities, International Window Corporation, International Window Corporation and J&B Manufacturing Corporation.
The complaint alleges the single-family homes in the Meadows Del Mar community, built in 2001, have defective windows and French doors, designed in such a way that allows water to get between wood joints causing them to deteriorate prematurely and resulting in water damage to the interior walls and finishes of the homes.
This lawsuit is a second-generation case against the defendants. In 2008, Levine represented four homeowners in Meadows Del Mar with the same problems. That case was among those settled out of court.
Last fall, Levine’s firm filed a complaint against builder Colrich Communities and several other defendants, including window designer Micron Industries and manufacturer Pacific Window, on behalf of homeowners in Torrey Woods Estates in Carmel Valley, for alleged defective vinyl-framed windows.
The homes in the Torrey Woods development were built by Colrich Communities between 2001 and 2003.
The complaint alleges that windows bowed causing seals to break allowing water to leak through the windows resulting in drywall deterioration, drywall and stucco cracking and staining, discoloration of floorings and microbial growth.
Levine contends the homeowners have fallen victim to a systematic failure of their window systems.
Asked what intrigues him most about his work, he said, “I’m constantly learning.”
Name:Scott D. Levine
Current president of the Consumer Attorneys of San Diego.
As a partner in the law firm of Silldorf & Levine, he represents homeowners in construction defect actions and also practices business litigation, employment and franchise law.
Carmel Valley for 20 years
Detroit, Mich., 44 years ago
B.S. degree in business economic with emphasis on accounting, University of California at Santa Barbara, 1988; Juris Doctor degree, California Western School of Law, 1991.
He and his wife, Amy, a college admissions consultant, have been married 22 years. They have two children: Alexandra, 16, and Andrew, 11, both students at La Jolla Country Day.
Running (used to compete in triathlons), movie-going (3 times a month), and reading.
Runs three to five days a week, averaging four to five miles per run.
Films he enjoyed:
“Wall Street,” and “The Blind Side”
The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, by Michael Lewis; and Circle of Greed, by Patrick Dillon and Carl Cannon.
“Try to enjoy the journey.”