City Of Athens Wins Lawsuit Over Storm Sewer Problems

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The city of Athens has won a 2010 lawsuit filed against it by the owners of a Columbus Road dentistry building where there have been persistent problems with storm water backup.

Earlier this month, Athens County Common Pleas Judge L. Alan Goldsberry ruled that the city has immunity in the case, and he granted a summary judgment in favor of the city.

The original lawsuit was filed by Laries Inc., Dr. James Reistenberg and Dr. Timothy Lavelle. As The Messenger previously reported, the lawsuit sought a judgment for property damage at 207 N. Columbus Road in the amount of $346,055, plus for any future water damage that might occur until the storm sewer system was repaired. Also requested was more than $25,000 in a personal injury claim, asserting a loss of enjoyment of life and severe emotional and mental distress.

The lawsuit asserted that the city was negligent in the maintenance of the storm water sewer system.

In his ruling, Goldsberry states that the maintenance, operation and upkeep of a sewer system is a "propriety function" of government for which it could be held liable for negligence of its employees.

However, Goldsberry ruled that the problems described in the lawsuit stem from design and construction issues, which are "governmental functions" for which the city is immune from liability.

"These lines and components failed to move storm water as intended due to poor design and/or construction, not because defendant failed to maintain them," Goldsberry wrote, ruling that the city has immunity.

"This result may be perceived as harsh, and the doctrine of sovereign immunity is not without substantial criticism. However, it is Ohio's legislative choice for the preservation of political subdivision integrity," Goldsberry noted.

Motions for summary judgment ask a court to decide a case before it goes to trial. In this case, those who filed the lawsuit also had asked for summary judgment.
Goldsberry ruled the even if immunity did not apply, the plaintiffs had failed to show they were entitled to summary judgment. The negligence claim they made would have been a matter for a jury to decide, Goldsberry wrote.

The judge also noted there is a question whether the city even had a duty to maintain the storm sewer system. "With the exception of (a catch basin), the components of this system appear to lie on or under private property, and serve private property," Goldsberry wrote.