Because water is very important to everyone, a water company is required to provide service to all individuals who want it and pay the required rates. A water company has a duty to provide all of its customers with an adequate supply of water which can be used without harming their health. The water company must also provide the water at an appropriate level of pressure.
If a customer has faithfully paid their water bill over the years, it is implied that the water company will continue to provide that individual with water service so long as the bill continues to be paid. A water company’s failure to provide a paying customer with water is a breach of contract.
The water company is responsible for all damages which result from failing to supply their customer with water as promised. According to water shut off laws, however, there may be legitimate grounds for cutting off a customer’s water service. Water disconnection laws may permit a water company to cut off service if a customer does not pay their bill or willfully wastes water.
What Can I Do If My Water Service is Stopped?
The water company is not permitted to engage in discontinuation of water service because an individual is challenging a charge that is:
- Excessive; or
If an individual believes the water company has stopped their service in error, they should contact the company immediately. The water company is not required to notify an individual in advance of a temporary termination of water service.
However, if the water company has unjustly terminated an individual’s service and refuses to restore it, they can take the company to court. In court, the individual may be able to obtain an injunction to compel the water company to perform its public duty by continuing service.
How Does the Termination of the Water Service Process Work?
A water shut off policy is a policy that is provided by a water service company which informs customers of the policy for termination of services due to non-payment. In many cases, these policies can be found on the company’s website.
A water service termination agreement is an agreement which is made between a water service provider and a property owner or a Homeowner’s Association (HOA). These agreements include provisions regarding water services to the property or properties as well as rules regarding terminations.
What Laws Protect Me Against Termination of Water Service?
According to the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, citizens afforded due process. As it relates to utility services, utility companies must provide consumers fair notice prior to termination. If notice was not given, an individual was not afforded due process of law.
There are laws which protect individuals against termination of service. They are dependent upon the entity which owns the service. A utility may be:
- Privately owned and governed by state public utility statutes, regulations, and rules;
- Municipally owned with no constitutional limits on the utility; and
- A Rural Electric Cooperative (REC), which has its own specific set of rules, in addition to constitutional limits.
A utility service is required to use fair practices when considering and implementing a termination of service. Federal consumer protection statutes protect individuals from having their civil rights violated in the process of a utility shut down.
In general, if a utility is regulated by the, there are certain minimum protections which apply, including:
- Notice – The consumer must be given notice prior to termination of their service;
- Limits on when a utility is permitted to turn off a service such as small balances and those lasting less than a few months. In addition, bill disputes and termination before a holiday or at a certain time of day are typically prohibited;
- The right to appeal – The consumer has the right to appeal the termination to both the company and the state utility commission; and
- The right to a deferred payment plan – Some states require the utility to inform the consumer of a reasonable installment payment plan prior to termination.
It is important to note that a utility company is not permitted to terminate an individual’s service if they are disputing their bill. If a customer was undercharged, the water service company cannot demand a lump sum payment and then threaten to terminate the service if it is not paid.
In California, the Water Shut Off Protection Act was signed into law in 2019. This Act applies to urban and community water systems with 200 or more connections. It only applies to residential water services which are terminated for non-payment.
Pursuant to the Act, urban and community water systems are required to have a written policy explaining the process for discontinuation of residential water services for non-payment. This policy must be available on their website or available to customers upon request.
The Act imposes a 60 day waiting period before an urban and community water system can discontinue an individual’s water service. It provides that discontinuation for non-payment cannot occur until the account has been delinquent for at least 60 days.
It is important to note that the Act does not specify exactly when that period begins to run, so the water supplier should address that issue in its termination policy. The Act also requires notice of a potential termination to be given to the customer on the account at least seven days prior to the possible termination of their service.
Notice can be provided by telephone or in writing. If the notice is provided by phone, the water supplier is required to:
- Provide the written policy on continuation of water services; and
- Offer to discuss options to avoid discontinuation of service, which may include:
- alternative payment schedules;
- deferred payments;
- minimum payments;
- amortization; and
- bill review and appeal.
If the notice is provided in writing, it must be mailed to the customer at their address or to the serviced property address, if that is not the customer’s address. The notice is required to include:
- The customer’s name and address;
- The amount of delinquency;
- The date by which the customer must make a payment or a payment arrangement in order to avoid discontinuation of their service;
- A description of the process to apply for an extension of time to pay the amount owed;
- A description of the procedure to petition for a review and appeal of the bill that gives rise to the delinquency; and
- A description of the procedure by which a customer may request an alternative payment schedule.
What Are Some Common Disputes Involved with Water Service Termination?
There are different types of disputes which may be involved in water service termination. These may include:
- Billing issues;
- Service issues;
- Termination of service issues; and
- Improper termination issues.
It is important to contact an attorney if an individual is having issues or disputes regarding their water service. An attorney can assist in keeping their service from being terminated.
Can I Sue the Water Company?
An individual can sue the water company depending on the facts of the circumstances. Although a water company may be a public utility that is run by the government, they typically do not get governmental immunity. In addition to suing to have an individual’s service restored, they may also sue for damages suffered while the individual was without water, assuming the lack of water caused injury.
Should I Contact a Lawyer if my Water Service is Stopped?
Yes, it is essential to have the assistance of a property lawyer if your water service is stopped. The termination of water service can have a devastating effect on you as well as your family.
Your lawyer can review your situation, help you avoid a termination of service, or assist you in getting your service reinstated. They can also assist you in filing a lawsuit, if necessary, and recover damages for your injuries.