Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

City Rejects Hawley Rd. Flood Settlement

Residents left soaked with costs after settlement agreement falls apart. Their attorney thinks it might cost even more to sue.

By - Mar 25th, 2021 04:59 pm
Broken cast iron water main from S. Hawley Rd. Images from the City of Milwaukee.

Broken cast iron water main from S. Hawley Rd. Images from the City of Milwaukee.

More than three dozen residents near W. Dixon St. and N. Hawley Rd. watched as their streets, basement and vehicles flooded on December 28th, 2019 after a 29-foot segment water main unexpectedly broke apart. Some ended up with up to three feet of water in their basements.

The exact cause of the incident, which sent thousands of gallons of water gushing downhill for hours, is still undetermined, but a review of the remaining pieces of the 60-year-old, 16-inch water main showed significant corrosion on the cast iron pipe.

Now those residents will be able to sue the city after the Common Council rejected their claims, and a proposed settlement. But the economics of a suit may not make sense according to an attorney representing a group of residents.

Area Alderman Michael Murphy has repeatedly championed a settlement for his constituents. “This neighborhood is a very lower-income, working-class neighborhood,” said the alderman Tuesday. “There was an extensive amount of time where the water flowed unabated, and that is where the damage was done.”

Murphy characterized the decision to slowly turn the water off as a choice. A Milwaukee Water Works representative previously said it was a practical matter with a two-person crew needing to manually turn a butterfly valve 900 times, a task that that takes about two hours.

The damage was more significant than a standard water main leak given the size of the main that broke, the length of time it was open and its location uphill from many of the homes. Residents did not have flood insurance because they do not live in a flood plain.

Murphy proposed a 50% payment, with a cap of $200,000, for damage claims submitted to the city. But he only found three other council members in support of the deal when the Common Council voted. His proposal failed 4-11, with opposition centered on the opinion that such a deal would expose the city to future liability.

“There is a paper trail that literally could be made here,” said Alderwoman Chantia Lewis. “I don’t want to open Pandora’s box or anything.”

Ald. Scott Spiker noted that the Milwaukee Water Works hired its own consultant that determined the city-owned utility was not negligent. He expressed concern that a settlement could establish a legal precedent.

“Most of the claims we hear we have immunity,” said Ald. Ashanti Hamilton, chair of the Judiciary & Legislation Committee. State law shields the city from damage claims for issues related to potholes, falling trees and other infrastructure failures. The city rarely approves small settlements for incidents, instead often rejecting the claims and allowing them to go to court.

Hamilton said a key piece of information was missing. He wanted to see a report from an insurance claims adjustor. “Without that investigation, many of the things people are presenting as fact cannot be validated,” he said. “There is no way we can vote to settle this without that information.”

Murphy said a claims adjustor would be the one determining the value of items under the settlement.

Joining Spiker, Lewis and Hamilton in voting against the measure were Nikiya Dodd, Milele A. Coggs, Khalif Rainey, JoCasta Zamarripa, Mark Borkowski, Marina Dimitrijevic, Russell W. Stamper, II and Cavalier Johnson.

Ald. Robert Bauman was the only other member to speak for the settlement, noting that it would be paid by Milwaukee Water Works ratepayers, not city tax payers. The city sells water to city residents and businesses as well as more than a dozen suburbs. “I think these cases are all unique, I don’t think it sends any precedent,” said Bauman. Council members Nik Kovac and Jose G. Perez joined Bauman and Murphy in voting for the failed settlement.

Murphy acknowledged that City Attorney Tearman Spencer is opposed to any settlement. “The City Attorney has been very consistent, he’s been vehemently opposed to this settlement,” said the alderman. Spencer took office the spring after the incident occurred.

The claimants were willing to accept a settlement because of the expected costs of litigation. Attorney Michael Cerjak of Cannon & Dunphy S.C., representative of 13 of the claimants, said it was in everyone’s interest to settle. He told the Judiciary & Legislation Committee on March 15th that he believed he could establish negligence on the city’s part, but that it would likely cost more than $50,000.

“The amount I’m going to spend makes it difficult to proceed,” said Cerjak, noting that claims he represented didn’t exceed $200,000.

The council rejected nine other individual claims Tuesday alongside Cerjak’s 13 clients. In total, the city has received 39 claims totaling $436,000 in damage.

The city has already rejected some claims related to the incident, with at least one homeowner suing the city.

Want to learn more about the incident? We detailed a timeline of events in a January 2020 column.

Categories: City Hall, Weekly

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