Water Line Break: Lack Of City Funding Or Lack Of City Training?

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The 4th District Court of Appeals is considering the case of an Athens couple who say a water line break caused “a million” gallons of water to flood into their yard and the city’s response was not what it should have been.

The city, with whom a trial court ruled, said personnel allocations and a lack of governmental funding attributed to the response, but do not make the city liable.

Dave and Christine Matter, of Canterbury Drive, have sued the city and are seeking $211,719 for damage to their property based on previous Messenger reporting. They are also seeking personal injury claims in the case.

According to the lawsuit, Dave Matter arrived home on July 29, 2008, and discovered neighbors standing in front of his house watching three geysers of water from water line breaks. Neighbors had reported the leak to the city at 4 p.m., and it was reported twice again before a water crew arrived at about 7:30 p.m. and began excavating the leak area, the lawsuit states.

After the incident, the city “upgraded” the water system in the area to include new water lines and technology. A trial court ruled that “necessary and extensive corrective efforts constitute upgrades and improvements that went well-beyond just keeping the lines in an existing state,” as Charles Curley, counsel for the city, told the appeals court on Thursday.

The city has denied it was negligent and have said that it is entitled to immunity under governmental law.

Attorney Garry Hunter told the three-judge panel on Thursday that the “upgrade” the city did to the pipes does not make up for the lack of response, not only during the line break, but in the years before it when reports showed the lines in the area were deteriorating.

“(The city) knew the line was in bad shape, their annual reports reflect that they knew the line was in bad shape,” Hunter argued.

When the water line broke in July 2008, though, Hunter said the emergency response was lacking as well. The installation of new valves and lines should not be considered an upgrade, he said, because the lines were so badly in need of maintenance in the first place.

Not only were the pipes in need of maintenance, but Hunter argued that the crews sent to deal with the problem were not properly trained by the city, so much so that they made the problem worse.

“After the water break occurs, you’ve got a response…not by a water crew, you’ve got a response by a street, sewer crew,” Hunter said. “There’s an emergency response policy, but they aren’t aware of it.”

The crews also couldn’t find the emergency shut-off valves needed to stop the flow of water, Hunter said. When a water crew arrived hours later, the one valve they could find was not working properly, according to Hunter.

The biggest problem, though, was the lack of knowledge of an emergency policy, which the city had previously acknowledged they had in place.

“If (emergency crews) knew about the emergency policy, they would have known that they had to call the water plant and tell them to shut down the pumps,” Hunter told the court.

But the call was not made, and the pumps ran for five hours, resulting in new water rushing onto the Matters property every 30 minutes.

“The testimony was that’s a 100,000 or 200,000-gallon tank,” Hunter said. “That’s like a million gallons of water and it all is flowing over my client’s property, which happens to be about two or three feet below the street level.”

The Matter’s case is one of many that will likely come before the court, according to Curley. Aging municipal infrastructure and less funds to pay personnel are issues seen statewide, he told the court.

“The problem here was a lot more advanced than a valve that didn’t work,” Curley said.

The issue of personnel became a discretionary decision for the city, Curley said. He said the appeals court should affirm the findings of the trial court, arguing against the Matters’ argument that the city failed to have supervisors or personnel who knew how to deal with the break, and failed to respond in a timely manner.

“This took place after hours,” Curley said. “There were collective bargaining agreement requirements that had to be satisfied.”

Curley maintained that the city’s response was as timely and as efficient as it could have been, given the economic circumstances.

This court has said…a lack of funding does not get municipalities around their duty to properly maintain their systems,” Curley said. “But the problem is a huge deterioration of infrastructure. (Crews) don’t have the technology, they don’t have the equipment they need.”