Legal Stir Impacts Whirlpools

An interesting legal battle is promising to cause quite a stir in the whirlpool bath industry, and could wind up having a major impact on the way future whirlpools are manufactured, marketed and sold.

The brouhaha, which emanates from a recent court action filed by SANIJET Corp. against Kohler Co. and Jacuzzi Inc., focuses squarely on the issue of whirlpool bath technology and its alleged potential effects on consumers' health.

In many ways, however, the case focuses just as squarely on two equally intriguing questions.

Specifically:

  • What is the point at which a kitchen/bath product advertiser crosses the line between basing a product claim on what it believes is a genuine health-related concern, as opposed to a claim whose foundation rests almost exclusively on what others see as baseless "scare" tactics aimed primarily at selling product?
  • And, at what point should a manufacturer abandon traditional forms of marketing based on the virtues of its own products and attempt to enjoin competitors on the grounds of alleged truth-in-advertising violations?

These issues came to a boil with the news that SANIJET had filed separate lawsuits against Kohler and Jacuzzi, charging that those two companies make "false and misleading" claims in ads about the sanitation of their piped whirlpool bath systems. The suits allege that the ads in question "are false" and mislead homeowners and specifiers "into believing that [the Kohler and Jacuzzi] whirlpool baths are sanitary when they are not." SANIJET also contends in the legal action that the ads "not only deceive the public, but impair SANIJET's ability to compete fairly in the marketplace."

For SANIJET, the legal action represents the latest move in an effort to make major inroads into the highly competitive whirlpool market.

SANIJET last year introduced its pipeless whirlpool technology as an alternative to traditional piping systems, which, the company contends, can promote the growth of infectious bacteria. SANIJET, which has rested its entire marketing campaign primarily on the supposed advantages of pipeless technology, has characterized its system as "industry-changing technology" that's not only safer than piped units, but, in fact, threatens their very existence.

The company, however, has been thwarted to a large degree in its efforts thanks, in part, to the formidable competition wrought by plumbing products giants like Kohler and Jacuzzi.
SANIJET initially had its products carried by a network of plumbing distributors, decorative showrooms and others. However, the company soon found itself facing a "dilemma" that resulted from showroom personnel being "uncomfortable" in pitching SANIJET's products while continuing to sell piped units.

SANIJET, in fact, recently announced that it would no longer sell its products through dealers and distributors who also sell piped whirlpool and air tub systems. The move,'
the company said, was aimed "at ensuring consumer awareness" about its pipeless'
units and because it "could not rely" on traditional channels "to fully discuss cleaning and sanitation issues associated with competing technologies."

The lawsuit against Kohler and Jacuzzi followed shortly on the heels of that move.
Jacuzzi whose brand name literally defined the whirlpool category for years '
has thus far declined comment on the lawsuit. In contrast, Kohler, which has been'
manufacturing whirlpools for some 25 years, has been forceful in its contention that because SANIJET, in effect, has failed to meet its sales objectives based on the merits of its own products, it has chosen to adopt a last-ditch strategy of attacking competitors' products based on alleged health hazards that, in reality, don't exist.

Kohler points out that its products "have always met applicable industry performance standards," and notes that the company "has never received a documented claim" attributing an illness to one of its whirlpools. Kohler, which termed the lawsuit "frivolous and aimed at creating an issue to alarm consumers needlessly," has also filed a counterclaim, charging that SANIJET "is using litigation and media coverage as its primary marketing tool" and is using "false and misleading descriptions designed to scare people into buying its products."

Which side will win this legal battle will, of course, be determined by the courts. But regardless of who wins, two things seem clear for the moment: The case carries important implications and warrants close attention and the real winner, whatever the outcome, will ultimately be the American consumer.

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