Beaufort News

More lawsuits target Beaufort County water-filtration system sales

They are a pastor and a car technician, a landscape manager and someone on disability pay.

The list of Beaufort County residents who say they bought water-filtration systems based on misrepresentations by the same salesman is long. And they report a similar experience — a notice in the mail for free detergent, a high-pressure sales pitch and then a lightning-fast installation of a system that experienced problems or didn’t perform as promised they no longer use.

Some have sued. Others have not.

Two more lawsuits related to the systems were filed Sept. 14. The lawsuits contend salesman Robert Ciano lied about the water quality in the area to convince residents to buy a water-filtration system and had them enter prohibitive financing deals that have negatively affected their credit.

Bluffton resident Jason Price and Lady’s Island resident Cheryl Bowman are suing Ciano, Island Property Management Services and Castle Credit Corporation. Island Property Management Services was the business Ciano is said to have worked for at the time and Castle Credit provided the financing.

Price and Bowman are represented by Beaufort attorney Jim Moss, who represents several other residents who have sued with similar claims in past years. Some of those cases have reached settlements.

The two new lawsuits bring the total to nine brought by Moss and naming Ciano related to the water systems. Bluffton resident Roy Graves sued Island Property Management Services individually over the sale of a water-filtration system, represented himself and earned a $6,000 settlement in his favor in 2013, court records show.

Price bought the system in 2011 and Bowman in 2012. Both say Ciano told them water provided by Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority contained abnormal amounts of chlorine and could cause cancer and other health problems, according to the lawsuits.

The lawsuits contend Ciano’s sales method was illegal, that Island Property Management engaged in unfair business practices and that Castle Credit, which financed the systems, isn’t authorized to make consumer loans in the state. Price and Bowman are asking through the lawsuits for their debt to be nullified, liens on the systems be removed and for punitive damages.

A man named Robert Ciano is now listed in Georgia business filings as the CEO of Savannah-based Coastal Empire Water, which was formed in 2012 and has filed annual registration with the state each year through this past March.

Bluffton residents Alan Klingel and his wife, Susan, sued Coastal Empire Water, Ciano and two financial institutions in 2014 related to the sale of a water-filtration system.

Susan Klingel said Friday she and her husband were comforted by a 90-day trial period Ciano had offered. But soon Alan Klingel suffered a severe reaction to the water and had to regularly see a dermatologist, his wife said. The couple’s pleas to Ciano were ignored, Susan Klingel said.

Two phone messages and an email for Ciano through Coastal Empire Water have not been returned. A phone message and email to an attorney who has represented Ciano in past cases were also unreturned as of Friday afternoon.

A man who answered a phone number found online for Patrick Esposito, listed in state business filings as the registered agent for Island Property Management Services, declined to identify himself and said he didn’t know what a reporter was talking about.

Attempts late Friday afternoon to reach Castle Credit Corporation and an attorney who has represented the company in past lawsuits were unsuccessful.

Esposito told The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet in 2012 that Ciano worked for him while selling the systems. A Lady’s Island woman who organized residents over the claims was “pushing everyone’s buttons” with false information, the newspaper reported Esposito as saying when issues first arose in 2012.

Ciano had both Price and Bowman sign installation and credit agreements and told them there was a 90-day trial period, during which no payments would be due to financing company Castle Credit Corporation, their lawsuits said.

Castle Credit placed liens on the water-filtration systems by way of UCC financing statements, also known as fixture filings, without proper notice to Price and Bowman, according to the complaint Moss filed.

The lien has kept Bowman from refinancing her home and driven up Price’s homeowner’s insurance and mortgage payment due to bad credit reports, the lawsuits say.

Castle Credit has filed about 100 such liens on water-filtration systems in Beaufort County, county records show. Some have been terminated.

Multiple people who purchased the systems told The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet the system’s function was misrepresented during the sale and that they later discovered the system only softened water.

Price began noticing a smell in clothes, towels and other items attributed to problems with the filtration system, his lawsuit says. He complained to the defendants about the issues but didn’t receive any help, the lawsuit contends.

“(Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority) already did everything these filters they were selling did,” said Moss, who referenced a deposition by a BJWSA employee.

Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority has not received any recent reports from residents related to poor water quality, field operations director Joe DeVito said. But the agency has received calls in the past.

“They will even run a test and make it change color and say this is dangerous,” DeVito said of past sales tactics. “We follow up, do a standard water quality test and show it is safe.

“We let people know the water we deliver to your home is safe to drink. ...Filtration is not required; it’s a preference.”

Graves, a pastor more than 30 years at Grace Community Church, is on a well at his home in Bluffton and wanted the system to purify and control the odor, he said. He bought the system, the water began to stink and the technicians sent to address the problem didn’t and told him not to touch the equipment, Graves said.

Graves hired someone from Ridgeland who he said provided a solution to the smell for about $100 and told him the filtration system was little more than a water softener.

Like others, Graves said he was lured in by a promise of free Tide detergent, and that the product was misrepresented during the high-pressure sale. He consulted with Moss and ultimately decided to represent himself in suing Island Property Management.

“They found clearly in our favor because clearly they were wrong,” Graves said. “It was advertised to be one kind of system that it wasn’t. It was kind of a shell game.”

Lady’s Island resident Susan Wargo organized a group of Beaufort County residents who bought the systems during multiple public meetings several years ago. She sued Ciano, Castle Credit and A&M Environmental Services — another company associated with Ciano — in 2012.

That lawsuit is still pending and, like others, the system she purchased is in place and disconnected. An order for continuance in Wargo’s case from February said Ciano had been diagnosed with a serious medical condition requiring “immediate and intense” treatment and that he would not be available for trial for several months.

Stephen Fastenau: 843-706-8182, @IPBG_Stephen