Sewage Backups–Does a Bad Odor Mean a Good Case?

During a four-day period from March 12-15,   parts of eastern Massachusetts received up to 10 inches of rain.      While there was widespread flooding throughout the region,  many people also experienced backups of raw sewage into their homes,  mostly in bathrooms located at or below ground level.    I have received a number of calls about these incidents,   primarily as a result of my representation of 14 condo unit owners in a pending case against the City of Taunton arising from two separate sewage backup incidents that occurred in a condominium complex in 2005 and 2006.

The first thing you need to know about sewage backups is that the occurrence of a backup does not automatically mean that the municipality operating the sewage system is legally responsible for damage to your home.   The law provides that in order for the municipality to be liable,  it must have been on notice that the sewage system could malfunction in the way that it did, and then failed to take steps to remedy the vulnerability of the system to backups.    In many instances this is not difficult to prove.    Sewage backups usually result when the pipes in a sewer are filled beyond capacity;   the sewage needs somewhere to go,  and it generally finds the lowest point in a particular area in which to "migrate" out of the system.

Sewers experience capacity problems for several reasons:

1.  The pipes are old and typically made of clay,  which is permeable.

2.  The system takes in stormwater (which should be part of a separate system) as well as groundwater, which makes it vulnerable to backups during heavy rain events.

3.  The sewage pipes are too small to carry the sewage resulting from increased development and population growth in the area.

Damages for sewage backups are wide-ranging,  and include the cost of repair of the damaged property,  mental anguish, inconvenience,  loss of enjoyment and use,  and reduction in value resulting from the loss.    Most homeowners insurance policies provide limited coverage for sewage-related losses.

One potential key consequence of a sewage backup is the formation of mold,  which can trigger severe allergic reactions.     It is prudent in the wake of a sewage incident to engage the services of a qualified mold inspector to test for the presence of mold and to recommend strategies to get rid of it.

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