Basement flooding prompts class action lawsuit

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By J. PATRICK PEPPER
Times-Herald Newspapers

Homeowners who suffered flooding damage to their basements have filed a class-action lawsuit against five Wayne County communities, including Allen Park, Dearborn and Dearborn Heights.

The suits, filed in Wayne County Circuit Court, seek unspecified damages and allege that improper sewer design and/or maintenance issues caused severe and widespread basement flooding during a torrential rain in early June. The other communities being sued are Garden City and Westland.

The law firm representing the plaintiffs, Macuga, Liddle & Dubin P.C., held a press conference last week to announce the suit. Lead attorney Steven Liddle said hundreds of homes likely were flooded during the storm that was characterized by Dearborn officials as a once-in-50-years event.

The lawsuits allege five claims for damages: structural damage to real property; destruction of personal property, loss of property value; loss of use and enjoyment of property; and recompense for time and money spent disinfecting the sewage backup.

Following the storm, 147 people in Dearborn filed claims with the city. Of those, 57 from south end residents have been referred to the city of Detroit because the south end is not part of the Dearborn sewage system, city attorneys said.

In Dearborn Heights, where a low water table has plagued south end residences with flooding for years, about 220 claims were filed, said attorney Gregory Roberts, who is representing the city.

Officials of both cities have said that investigations into the cause of the flooding uncovered no sewage system malfunctions.

“While we certainly are empathetic to (the homeowners’) situation, we have not discovered anything that indicates the city’s sewers weren’t operating properly,” said Dearborn spokeswoman Mary Laundroche.

Heights officials declined to comment for this story.

Metropolitan Detroit municipal sewage systems, mostly built in the early or mid-20th century, were engineered to handle anywhere from a once-in-five-years storm to a once-in-20-years storm. The plaintiffs’ attorney, Liddle, argues that it is unacceptable to have what he called “catastrophic” flooding incidents that frequently.

“What we’re saying is that this is unacceptable, and we need to get these cities to understand that a solution is needed,” he said in an interview.

The lawsuits, which list an individual complainant for each city, must be deemed appropriate for class action by a Wayne County judge within 90 days. If not, the suits would proceed with the individual plaintiffs.

In 2001, Liddle and his firm helped lobby for the successful passage of Michigan Public Act 222, which clarifies the conditions under which municipalities are liable for sewer backups.

The act sets standards to determine the extent to which a municipality is liable for backups and establishes a process to seek compensation when a backup occurs.

According to the act, anyone making a claim for property damage or physical injury must prove that the public sewer had a defect. They also must prove the governmental agency knew — or in the exercise of reasonable diligence, should have known — about the defect.

Additionally, it must be proven that the governmental agency did not take reasonable steps in a reasonable amount of time to repair, correct or remedy the defect. Finally, the defect must be 50 percent or more of the cause of the event and the property damage or physical injury.