CAN IMPROPER OR INADEQUATE CONSTRUCTION OF A SEWER SYSTEM GIVE RISE TO A NEGLIGENCE CLAIM BY THOSE DAMAGED WHEN THE SYSTEM FLOODED?
Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
Williamson v. City of Hays, 275 Kan. 300, 64 P.3d 364 (2003).
THIS CASE ADDRESSES THE FOLLOWING ISSUES:
When does runoff water from one property unto another’s property constitute a trespass?
When does construction of a city’s storm sewer system rise to the level of negligence?
This case dealt with damage caused to property, brought on by increased flow of runoff water, and whether or not a city could be responsible for that damage under either a trespass theory or negligence theory. Id. at 301-02. The court ultimately found that each theory could provide for recovery, but neither did so on the facts of this case. Id. at 311-12. The landowner-plaintiffs could not show that the city’s actions, rather than the “ordinary and regular course” of the water itself, cause the increased flow. Id. at 310. Additionally, the city met all “generally recognized and prevailing standards” in the construction of the property, meaning no breach of its duty had occurred in the design, construction, or installation of the storm sewer system. Id. at 312.
In this case, the defendant-city constructed a storm sewer for water drainage on property abutting that of the plaintiffs. Id. at 301. The plaintiffs sued for damage caused by water runoff. Id. at 302. The plaintiffs advanced two theories for liability: trespass and negligence. Id. at 304. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendant on each count. Id. at 303.
Beginning with the trespass theory, the court noted that the key to trespass is the “inten[tion] to have foreign matter intrude upon the land.” Id. at 307-08. Here, there was simply no evidence that the city intended for any increase in runoff, nor that they knew the possibility existed and acted anyway. Id. at 308. In fact, the record indicated that runoff water had previously accumulated on the plaintiffs’ property and that there was no indication that the change in accumulation was caused by anything outside of the natural flow and course of water. Id. 311.
Moving on to the negligence claim, the court began with analyzing the duty at issue. Id. The duty at issue here was the duty to install, construction, plan, and design storm sewer systems “in conformity with generally recognized and prevailing standards in existence at that time.” Id. at 311-12. The records indicated that the defendant had exercised the appropriate level of care in this case. Id. Without evidence of a breach or causation, there could be no claim for negligence. Id. at 312.