By Hannah Heimbuch
A year and a half after a winter storm surge caused sewer to flood and seriously damage three Homer residences, the City of Homer has settled out of court to reimburse several owners.
Kenneth and Theresa Halpin filed a civil complaint against the city in March of 2013, maintaining that the failure of city operated sewer equipment was to blame for the more than four feet of sewage that destroyed parts of their house. Comprehensive damage to walls, flooring, electric systems, insulation, heat appliances, and much more made the residence – which the Halpins rented out – unsafe to occupy. They quoted damages and lost rental income upwards of $185,000.
The city announced that the settlement was complete this week, having worked with the Alaska Municipal League/Joint Insurance Association to reach an agreement in the amount of $250,000.
Ken Halpin is away for the fishing season and could not comment, but his attorney was optimistic about the settlement.
“We’re very satisfied,” said attorney, C. Michael Hough of Homer. “A lot of the reason that it settled is attributable to the attorney for the city. He was very reasonable.”
Though initial communication between the Halpins and the city were strained at best, and at times very frustrating Hough said, that dialogue improved as Homer’s legal representation became involved.
“In my opinion he was (initially) treated very shabbily,” he said. “Ken Halpin was simply told he’d never see a dime.”
This recent agreement, however, was reached by reasonable discussion through the city attorney, Hough said.
The city is represented in this case by Michael D. Corey of Jermain, Dunnagan & Owens, P.C. Of Anchorage.
Occupants of the three homes affected by the sewage flood initially received $3,500 in emergency relief funds from the city, though residents were frustrated at the prospect of weathering the disaster largely without support from those that owned the failed infrastructure.
In the original answer to the Halpin’s complaint, the city and its legal representation denied most of the Halpin’s claims, including the one that stated that the significant damage was caused by failure to take proper precautions against sewage draining into residential dwellings. The city responded that the storm and subsequent damage was, rather, an “Act of God,” terminology often used in insurance or legal claims to describe circumstances that arise from unpredictable natural elements.
The Halpin’s complaint, however, pointed to manholes and other parts of the drainage system as preventable equipment failures and the ultimate culprit in the disaster.
“Extraordinary storms caused an unprecedented amount of storm water to enter into the City’s sanitary sewer system,” states a Tuesday press release from the city.
Earlier reports stated that sewage backed into the line after a manhole was shoved up by frost. This opened the line to flooding and rain from the storm, which quickly overwhelmed it.
“AML/JIA and the City of Homer initially took the position that this storm system was an unusual event and that the damage that occurred was beyond the City’s control,” the release states. “However, after conducting a thorough internal investigation of all aspects of this event, including system engineering, maintenance procedures, and other factors, AML/JIA determined that the best course of action was to seek an out of court settlement and avoid a costly and divisive court proceeding. The City agreed.”
The ultimate out-of-court settlement means both parties avoid the previously scheduled September trial date.
“We regret the hardship and inconvenience this event has caused for the property owners,” the City reports. “This process was long and sometimes painful…we think these settlement agreements represent a good outcome and that they are fair to all parties.”
The City plans to increase efforts to reduce inflow and infiltration into the system. They encourage property owners at low elevations to secure appropriate insurance coverage and possibly a back-flow preventer.
“We will have to assess each case individually,” said City Manager Walt Wrede of any future cases. “And look at the specific circumstances. I don’t believe this settlement will set any kind of a precedent.
“The City is pleased to have this matter resolved,” Wrede said.
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