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After a broken water pipe, who pays for the damage – the city or its residents?


A viewer sent KSL a video of a torrent of water flowing down Park City’s Main Street following a water main rupture on July 11, 2019. (Grace McGowan)

Estimated reading time: 7-8 minutes

PARK CITY – When a city’s water main breaks and sends water into homes and businesses, someone has to take care of the mess. But who is responsible for paying for the damage: the city or its inhabitants?

Park City resident Mark Stemler believes the city should be responsible for the damage to his home. But court records show the city denies any negligence, citing the government immunity law.

A river crosses it

“Water flowed through the planks to the crawl space,” Stemler said as he described to KSL investigators the damage to his century-old home near Main Street in downtown Park City.

A main burst on the night of July 11, 2019, creating a huge sinkhole right next to Stemler’s house. It also sent thousands upon thousands of gallons of water into the house, soaking basement rugs and furniture and destroying much of the drywall. The flood left a watermark nearly a foot above the ground.

As serious as the damage was, the foundation made matters worse.

A structural engineer found the water accumulated up to two feet high. It saturated the soil that supported the footings, enough to reduce the density of the soil. All this movement destabilized the foundations, including two pillars of stacked concrete blocks, according to the engineer’s report.

So how much will all this damage cost to repair?

“Well, I’m thinking of a few hundred thousand dollars,” Stemler said.

Public works crews worked to repair a huge chasm that opened up next to Mark Stemler's house in July 2019.
Public works crews worked to repair a huge chasm that opened up next to Mark Stemler’s home in July 2019 (Photo: Mark Stemler)

Who is responsible?

Stemler said his home insurance will cover drywall, but the policy will not touch the foundation. He thinks Park City should be responsible for this. After all, it was their water line that broke. He said in the 29 months since the break he still hasn’t received a dime from the city.

In most situations, a city’s liability for damage caused by a broken water main ends at the meter between the main and the house’s supply line. From that point on, it is up to the owner to take responsibility for the damage. But Stemler’s situation is not like most.

The day after the break, Park City city officials told KSL the cause could be linked to a new roadway. Hours before the main burst, a city-hired road crew laid fresh asphalt over the pipeline, right next to Stemler’s house.

“The town man said the break was likely due to compaction and work done with the asphalt that day,” Stemler said.

To make matters worse, this team covered covers on the street that would have allowed responders to access the mainline valves. And the access covers have been covered without their location being marked. On the evening of the break, the public works and firefighters had to dig in this new asphalt to find these valves.

“They spent over three hours trying to locate them so that they could open them, so they could turn them off,” Stemler explained.

Government immunity and negligence

Stemler has filed a lawsuit against Park City and its asphalt contractor, alleging that concealing valve access covers, among other things, constitutes gross negligence. But does his argument – hold water?

Lawyer Robert Sykes does not represent Stemler or Park City or its asphalt contractor, but he studies and practices government claims law and believes Stemler may have a case.

Attorney Robert Sykes tells KSL's Matt Gephart how a city could still be held liable for a water main rupture under Utah's Governmental Immunity Act.
Attorney Robert Sykes tells KSL’s Matt Gephart how a city could still be held liable for a water main rupture under Utah’s Governmental Immunity Act. (Photo: Ken Fall, KSL-TV)

Sykes said that in general, under Utah’s Governmental Immunity Act, municipalities cannot be held responsible for acts that constitute a function of government, such as providing water to homes or businesses, unless that negligence cannot be proven. Under its immunity waivers provision, a government entity can be held liable if its work creates a faulty, unsafe, or unsafe condition of any freeway, road, culvert, bridge, tunnel, lane, crosswalk, overpass. or structure therein or any other public improvement.

“It seems to me that you have the faulty and dangerous condition of a freeway or a road,” Sykes said. “And the reason you have that is because they’re covering it up and didn’t get in fast enough for them to fix something.”

Park City officials also told media the cause was a broken valve. And there was another complication: A city spokeswoman told KSL the day after the break that “the valves were somewhat rusty and this was contributing to the incident.”

“I would say a rusty valve is neglect,” said Sykes. “Because it is very predictable that you will turn a rusty valve and it will break.”

Through KSL and other media, the city also asked residents and businesses to contact the city to report the property damage.

“They are making a confession for interest,” Sykes explained. “It’s admissible in court.”

So what does Park City have to say about all of this now? In a statement emailed to KSL investigators, not much. “As usual with ongoing litigation, Park City Municipal has no comment on this matter.”

However, in court records, city attorneys deny Stemler’s allegations of negligence, saying there is no evidence. And they invoke the Governmental Immunity Act of Utah.

The growing risk of ruptured water pipes

But the problems caused by ruptured water pipes won’t end in a Park City courtroom or in Stemler’s crawl space.

A 2018 survey of more than 300 utilities in the United States and Canada by researchers at Utah State University found that water line ruptures increased by 27% overall between 2012 and 2018. Ruptures in old water pipes made of cast iron or asbestos cement have increased by more than 40%. According to the report, pipes made from these two materials alone make up 41% of all water pipes in North America. And at that time, only 58% of those utilities said they had a regular pipe replacement program. Most of those old water pipes have only gotten old since.

It is not very difficult to find examples.

Last July, a water main rupture affected 15 homes in Murray. Another rupture created a geyser that closed a freeway exit ramp near downtown Salt Lake City in September. That same day, another broken Park City water main sent mud and water into the parking lot at Snow Creek Plaza. And in October, St. George News reported a 50-year-old pipe rupture in the St. George’s Bloomington Hills area that sent water to the basement of a house.

Don’t bet on insurance

If proving a city to be negligent is an uphill battle, how can landlords protect themselves? Well, don’t rely on your home insurance policy, explained insurance expert Les Masterson of Insure.com.

“It’s just not a covered peril. It’s not like fire or vandalism – those kinds of things that are usually covered,” Masterson said. “Insurers think it’s not their responsibility. It’s the city’s responsibility to make sure this doesn’t happen.”

Masterson says most flood insurance policies will not cover water line ruptures. They are used to cover damage caused by bad weather. However, an additional policy for an owner may be available.

“If it is something that concerns someone, they absolutely have to ask questions about it and see if it is possible to add it to the policy, knowing that it will cost more,” said Masterson.

As for Stemler and his damaged house, he vows to keep fighting the Park City town hall.

Mark Stemler tells KSL's Matt Gephart why he thinks the city is responsible for the damage to his home.
Mark Stemler tells KSL’s Matt Gephart why he thinks the city is responsible for the damage to his home. (Photo: Tanner Siegworth, KSL-TV)

“If you damage your neighbor’s property, you’re not looking for legal angles to try to avoid paying for it,” he said. “Come in and fix things. “

Pipe replacement program

KSL investigators asked Park City Municipal if it had some kind of pipe replacement program in place. In a statement, they told us:

“Park City Public Utilities’ asset management program includes an inventory of all significant assets, including underground infrastructure. This involves monitoring age, size, type, condition and performance. We use this information to establish our replacement priorities. Our goal is to minimize the disruption of water service to our customers and to minimize the potential damage associated with water line failures. “

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