City Sued Over Sewer Backups, Warns Homeowners

Thursday, June 16, 2016, 7:00 am
By: 
Alice Dreger

Above: an East Lansing basement floor drain through which sewer back-up has occurred

The City wants you to know that, if a sewer backs up into the drains in your East Lansing home and creates a big mess, odds are high the City will not help you financially and that your homeowner’s insurance will be inadequate to managing the cost of cleanup. That’s the message of a brochure recently distributed by the City on basement flooding.

As ELi has previously reported, in many East Lansing neighborhoods, the storm water and sanitary (toilet) sewers are combined, which means that if there is a heavy rain, storm water and sewage may backup into homes, potentially creating a costly and even dangerous mess. Even where there are not combined sewers, storm water can backup into homes after big rains.

But the age and condition of East Lansing’s sewers means that heavy rains are not the only time homeowners may face costly sewer back-ups. One long-running suit against the City dates back to a dry spell in early 2010, when several homes on Bramble Drive in the Pinecrest neighborhood suddenly had raw sewage shooting out of their basement drains.

Jim Gallagher was one of the affected homeowners, and he later moved with a few neighbors to sue the City to try to recover the tens of thousands of dollars spent on repairs and cleanup. He recalled for ELi recently just how bad it was: “The pressure in the shower drain [in the basement] was so intense, the sewage went from the floor to the ceiling.”

The sewage sprayed around Gallagher’s finished basement, and because of the health dangers associated with raw sewage, “anything it had touched had to be disposed of. Even the hot water heater.” Cabinets and wallboard had to be removed, carefully disposed of, and replaced.

Gallagher’s neighbor Jill Baker also faced a huge mess; she is another a plaintiff in the same lawsuit. The cleanup required specialized workers in hazmat suits using powerful disinfectants. Baker wonders to this day if the relatively rare autoimmune disease she developed shortly thereafter was set off by the sewage or the cleaning agents.

Baker and Gallagher both told me that, at first, City workers were eager to help the affected homeowners. But once the City realized how high the cost of cleaning up after this backup was going to be, City workers stopped returning their calls.

When the subject of sewer backups comes up, City representatives have consistently stated that the law holds a municipality responsible for sewer backups only if the problem is caused by a defect, and not if “the sewage backup was caused by a rain event greater than what the sewage system was designed to carry.”

But the Bramble Drive sewage backup, which occurred on February 17, 2010, could not have been caused by an unusual rain or snow-melt event. The period just before it and during it was dry. Moreover, Baker and Gallagher both told me that Department of Public Works employees told them it had been caused by an old contractor’s plug incorrectly left in the City’s sewer line.

Baker says that Todd Sneathen, then East Lansing’s Director of Public Works, “told me that a contractor's plug was responsible for the backup. He explained that calcium had built up around the ‘plug’ over the years to point that the line was completely blocked—‘supercharged’ in his words—a process that would have taken many years.”

She adds, “We felt that adequate inspection and maintenance should have revealed the problem. In other words, the City knew, or should have known of the problem.” But “the City had no records of inspection and/or maintenance of the system.”

Gallagher says it was clear that the obstruction in the City’s sewer caused the problem: “When they jetted the obstruction out of the line, the sewage in our house went down like magic.” But the City has maintained in court that the City is not legally responsible for what happened. So far, the costs have fallen entirely on the homeowners who suffered damage.

Baker says dealing with the City on this has been “frustrating at every step.” She explains, “we were asking just for the City to help us clean it up and take responsibility. We just wanted enough money to cover the damage. We lost everything in our basement and had to replace all of the drywall.”

Gallagher estimates the cleanup and repair/replacement costs for the three households suing the City exceeded $100,000. Because the homeowners did not have special riders to their homeowner insurance policies, the insurance companies would not cover the costs. Gallagher found the group an attorney who had experience in this area and who was willing to take the case on contingency, meaning that they would not have to pay the lawyer if the suit was not successful.

Both Baker and Gallagher told me that they sued the City simply to recover the money they had to spend because the City’s sewer line backed up into their homes. But they also told me they felt it was important to sue because other homeowners facing a similar mess might not be able to afford to lay out tens of thousands of dollars to undertake such a cleanup.

Gallagher believes the City has been fighting them “to avoid a precedent” of the City reimbursing homeowners for costs of damage caused by sewer backups. He notes that, though their side has won several rounds in the suit, even if they ultimately win, they expect all of what the City pays will go simply to pay the plaintiffs’ own legal costs, including the costs of expert witnesses hired to testify. He suspects they are unlikely to ever recoup their financial losses.

Asked about the status of the suit, City Attorney Tom Yeadon told me, “It was remanded by the Court of Appeals back to the circuit court for an evidentiary hearing and the lower court has not yet scheduled a hearing.” In other words, it is currently stalled. In fact, the case is so stalled that when I asked the City to give me a list of open lawsuits against the City, Yeadon forgot to include this one.

At City Council meetings over the last year, Scott House, who succeeded Sneathen as Director of Public Works, has repeatedly asked Council to approve contracts and expenditures for sewer repairs around the City. Through City staff, House has also recommended that presidents of neighborhood associations share the “basement flooding” brochure with their members. The brochure gives advice on how to try to prevent sewer backups into your home, and how to ask your insurance company for adequate coverage in advance of problems.

 

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