Usually a neighbor cannot be held responsible for property damage caused by runoff from naturally occurring rain and land conditions. However, if the water damage is caused by a neighbor’s actions or non-actions, this can present some difficulties.
Since the flow of water is somewhat unpredictable, it can be difficult to determine the exact degree of a neighbor’s liability for water damage to property. If proven, water damage disputes can result in the neighbor having to pay reimbursements for the property damage that they caused.
There are three basic legal theories or standards that courts can apply in a water dispute claim between neighbors. Each jurisdiction may be different with regards to which standard is applied. Also, the facts of each individual case may also yield different results.
The legal theories used in water damage disputes include:
- “Reasonable Use” rule: The neighbor can be held liable if they altered their property or land in some way that resulted in damage to your property due to surface water. You must show that the neighbor’s alteration was not reasonable under the circumstances (for example, if they created a water ditch leading straight to your property)
- “Common Enemy” rule: According to this rule, runoff and surface water are treated as a “common enemy” for all landowners. Each landowner is required to protect their own land from water damage, even if the water runs from one neighbor’s property to another’s. Many jurisdictions have loosened this rule and have required a showing that the other neighbor acted with negligence.
- "Civil Law" rule: This is the opposite of the Common Enemy rule- neighbors can be held liable if the alter their land in any way that disrupts the natural flow of the surface water across land. Some jurisdictions require extensive proof regarding whether the damage was foreseeable
Be sure to double check the laws of your state to determine which legal theory may be applicable in your case. Also, you may wish to consult with a lawyer if you are unsure of your claim.
If you are able to prove that you neighbor is responsible for the water damage, you may be able to recover damages for your losses. These can include:
- Costs associated with repairs for the damaged property
- If your home became uninhabitable due to the damage, you might be able to recover hotel or lodging costs
- Medical bills or hospital bills if the damage also caused you physical injury
- Punitive damages, if you can prove that your neighbor acted with malicious or criminal intent
Finally, you might also be able to obtain a court order requiring your neighbor to remedy the problem. They might be required to make repairs or replacement so that the water damage does not occur in the future.
Disputes with a neighbor can often be distressing. If you are involved in a dispute over water damage, you may wish to contact a real estate lawyer for advice or representation in court. Your attorney will be able to advise you according to the laws of your state, and can help you recover damages for you losses.