Sewage problems refer to sewage cleanup and property damages issues. Some common examples of how damage can typically occur include:
- Through sewage leaks;
- Overflow and backups;
- Ruptured pipes; and
- Digging or excavation on someone’s property.
Most sewage systems are operated by local municipality agencies. However, sewage systems may be contracted to an independent operator. This is important to keep in mind if you have sustained property damage due to a faulty sewer system. Damages related to sewage issues can quickly result in various safety and health hazards.
Because sewage problems can result in property damage, most jurisdictions allow private citizens to file a claim against the county based on principles of eminent domain. According to the United States Constitution, the government can legally take and use property for a public purpose if they provide the landowner with “just compensation.” Generally speaking, federal and state governments have delegated this eminent domain power to local governments and municipalities.
An example of how this would apply in terms of suing the county for property damage from sewage property would be if the county must use a person’s private property in order to construct or repair damaged sewage lines. In such instances, the county is required to reimburse the person for their loss of use of the land. If the county’s operations have resulted in damage to the property, the property’s owner is entitled just compensation, which would be recovery for damages.
What Does “Just Compensation” Mean?
As previously mentioned, according to eminent domain, property owners are owed just compensation when the government exercises their rights under the doctrine. “Just compensation” refers to the fact that the government must pay the landowner for the land that they take from them to be used for a public purpose.
Generally speaking, once the government has determined that they will take your land by asserting eminent domain, they will appraise your property. Once the appraisal is complete, they will send you a notice with a pro tanto award. A pro tanto award is a monetary offer on your property which is based on the appraisal. Most landowners accept the pro tanto award; however, it is absolutely important you remember that you do not have to. A local real estate attorney can help you determine whether you should accept or reject the offered pro tanto award.
“Just compensation” also means that the amount of monetary recovery offered must be reasonable. The government should not undervalue the property in order to justify offering a lower amount of just compensation. However, the amount being claimed can only cover expenses associated with damaged property and lost usage.
In terms of cases involving sewer backup and other such problems, you may also be entitled to recover for illness incurred by sewer damage. Just compensation can also take the form of an injunction. An injunction is a court decree instructing the defendant to either take some sort of action or cease some form of action.
Can I File a Complaint Based on Other Claims?
If the resulting property damage is severe enough, it may be possible to file a nuisance claim. Nuisance refers to the unreasonable or unlawful use of property in a way that causes damage to others, specifically by preventing them from enjoying their own property. Some common examples of nuisance according to legal terms include, but may not be limited to:
- Noxious smells;
- Loud noises;
- Unauthorized burning of materials;
- Posting of obscene or indecent signs or pictures; and
- Illegal gambling.
A nuisance claim pursuing sewage damage compensation would require the person to prove that the sewage problem has created an unreasonable interference with health, safety, or the enjoyment of personal property.
Further, property law distinguishes between public and private nuisance claims. A private nuisance generally only affects the person filing the claim, while a public nuisance affects an entire group of people or the public in general. It is important to note that obtaining relief for nuisance can be particularly difficult against the county or other government entities. This is largely due to legal concepts intended to shield the government from citizen accountability, such as qualified immunity. Recovery for such damages may be more likely if the sewage company is privately owned.
Alternatively, you may consider whether an encroachment claim is an appropriate option for you. “Encroachment” is a term used in property law to describe when one property owner builds or extends a structure that reaches their neighbor’s adjoining property or land. In doing so, it violates their neighbor’s property rights. Unless there is an easement or there is an agreement in place, no one has the legal right to build any type of structure on their own land that will extend beyond their property’s boundaries, thus encroaching upon a neighbor’s land.
In terms of sewage systems, encroachment generally involves the intrusion of pipes, concrete abutments, or other structures onto land. This would be in a manner that disrupts the use of the land. This is imperative to note, as the encroachment must actually interfere with the use or enjoyment of the property and cannot be merely aesthetic in order to bring a successful claim.
Encroachment is generally more appropriate when the offending party is a private citizen, such as a neighbor. If the encroachment is the county’s responsibility, an eminent domain claim may be more appropriate. Generally speaking, in order to file any claim against the government, you will be required to first file with an administrative agency. Once your claim has been denied, you can proceed with filing a lawsuit.
What Should I Do Before Filing a Sewage Damage Claim?
How you file a property damage claim, specifically a sewage damage claim, can vary greatly on a state by state basis. Generally speaking, you will need to verify the damage to your property in a court of law. This can be done by ensuring that the damage is well-documented through the use of the following evidence:
- Eyewitness statements; and
- Written accounts of the incident(s) involved.
Additionally, you should be sure to obtain the names and contact information of any witnesses involved. This information will be helpful even if they do not wish to provide a statement or testimony. Additionally, if you have suffered physical injury as a result of the sewage maintenance or lack thereof, you should also include medical reports and receipts.
Should I Contact a Lawyer for Sewage Damage?
If you have experienced property damage such as sewage damage, you should contact an experienced local property attorney. This is especially true if you are trying to hold your county responsible for the damage. Laws governing property damage and rights, as well as legal doctrines such as eminent domain, can vary widely from state to state. As such, it is recommended that you work with a local lawyer so that you receive the most relevant legal advice and guidance.
Your property attorney can also help determine who should be held responsible for sewage damage, and advise you regarding your next best legal steps. An experienced attorney will be aware of how you should file your complaint, and whether you can sue your county. Finally, an attorney can help you gather evidence to support your claim for property damage, as well as represent you in court, as needed.