YOUR RESPONSE STINKS
Mrs. Hubbell was a resident of Xenia, a small city in southeastern Ohio (Motto: One of America’s only cities to start with ‘x’). One unfortunate day, Mrs. Hubbell discovered that ‘x’ didn’t just stand for “Xenia.” It stood for ‘x’crement, too.
When Mrs. Hubbell’s basement, bathroom and kitchen all started filling up with some pretty nasty effluent from the sewer line, she called the emergency helpline the City of Xenia maintained for homeowners with such smelly problems. But it was the weekend, and the sewer department worker on duty wasn’t too keen on going out in the rain to check out her problem. He figured that it was just the rain backing things up, and if it were really bad, Mrs. Hubbell would call again.
Well, it was really bad, and Mrs. Hubbell did call again an hour later, to catalog all of the types of malodorous waste bubbling into rooms all over her house. That time, the worker did come. When he and his assistants pulled a manhole cover off the sewer main around the corner, a fountain of filth erupted and the liquid waste in the Hubbell home started draining away. It turned out that tree roots had jammed up the sewer main, and the City’s maintenance program hadn’t gotten around to clearing them away.
Mrs. Hubbell was unhappy at the Sewer Department’s lackadaisical response to her problem, so she sued. The City claimed it was immune under Ohio’s governmental immunity statute because its inspection program was an exercise in discretion. True, the Court agreed, but there was nothing requiring any special expertise in the lazy worker’s refusal to respond when Mrs. Hubbell reported a problem. The problem, the Court said, is that almost everything required some discretion, and to accept the City’s argument meant that everything a governmental entity did would be immune.
Here, the City had a kind of a contract with its residents. The City offered an emergency number, and the implied deal was that if a local taxpayer called, the City would respond. The worker’s decision to let the stink build — and to be sure, it was a real problem worthy of his attention on a Sunday afternoon — could easily be negligence. The Court said Mrs. Hubbell was entitled to her chance to prove that to a jury.
Hubbell v. Xenia, 175 Ohio App.3d 99, 885 N.E.2d 290 (Ct.App. Ohio 2008). Water and sewage began flowing into Mrs. Hubbell’s home through drains in a shower, a toilet, and a bathroom sink. Believing that the stinking problem was likely caused by a malfunction in the sewer system maintained by the City of Xenia. She called the City’s emergency services, and the call automatically transferred to the Xenia Police Department. The police paged an on-call sewer and waste maintenance worker, but he refused to do anything, suspecting that the problem was likely the result of heavy rainfall that day.
The sewage and dirty water continued to flow into Mrs. Hubbell’s home, and she desperately placed a second call for help several hours later. This time, the on-call worker decided to respond and investigate the problem, and a service crew was brought in.
Hubbell’s home is located at the intersection of Monroe and Home Avenues. The house is connected to the sewer main on Home Avenue, which in turn connects to the main on Monroe Avenue. The service crew examined the Home Avenue main line and found it was flowing freely, but when they removed the Monroe Avenue manhole cover, the backup into Hubbell’s house promptly subsided. The crew removed tree roots that had invaded the main. Sewer Department officials conceded that the roots may have contributed to the blockage.
Hubbell sued, alleging that Xenia was negligent in maintaining and operating its sewer line because it failed to inspect the Monroe Street main, allowing the line to become obstructed and clogged by tree roots and collected refuse, causing the back-up into her home. She also said the sewer condition constituted a nuisance for which Xenia was liable. Xenia claimed it was immune from liability under the Political Subdivision and Tort Liability Act.
The trial court refused to throw the case out, and Xenia appealed.
Held: The City was not entitled to have the case dismissed without trial. Generally, the Court said, where a municipal corporation assumes the management and control of a sewer, it is required to exercise reasonable diligence and care to keep the system in repair and free from conditions that will cause damage to private property. The municipality’s failure to do so may make it liable for damages caused by its negligence.
However, a municipal corporation’s liability is nevertheless subject to the defense of governmental immunity provided by §2744.01 of the Ohio Revised Code, if any of the five exceptions or one of the defenses to immunity set out in the statute apply.
Here, the Court ruled, Xenia’s ongoing inspection and cleaning of its sewer lines were entitled to governmental immunity because the execution of the program involved judgment and discretion as to how extensive and in what manner the program would be executed. However, routine decisions requiring little judgment or discretion and which, instead, portray inadvertence, inattention, or neglect, are not covered by the statute’s grant of immunity.
The City maintenance worker’s decision not to respond to Mrs. Hubbell’s call regarding the sewer backup incident, due to his belief that her problem resulted from excess rainfall, wasn’t an act of judgment or discretion for which the city was entitled to governmental immunity. Instead, the City’s contractual agreement with its residents to provide emergency services to those to whom it provided sewer services gave rise to a duty to perform such emergency services with ordinary care.
When one undertakes a duty to perform an act, and another reasonably relies on that undertaking, the act must generally be performed with ordinary care. A genuine issue of material fact existed, the Court said, as to whether the City was negligent in its performance of its duty to provide emergency services to Mrs. Hubbell, and that matter could only be settled at trial.
– Tom Root