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City sued over massive sewage leak

No entity, public or private, enjoys being sued. Litigation can be long, tedious and expensive. Even if the city is not fully at fault, it sometimes has no choice but to go to court or settle. This is what happened to our northern neighbors in Portland, Ore., who were sued after a historic building was flooded with human sewage.

Just two days before Christmas of 2015, the Oregon building's basement was overrun by rancid sewage. The leak was so massive that 95 percent of the first floor was affected; even the second floor of the building was contaminated by waste. The cost of cleaning the building and restoring the property damage would be enormously expensive.

Sewer lawsuit

The owner of the building filed a lawsuit against the City of Portland for over $230,000 in damages. The suit also named another defendant: the biodiesel company Oregon Oils, which it claimed unlawfully discharged grease into the city's sewer system, contributing to the leak. It took over three years, but eventually the lawsuit was dismissed and settled out of court. Fortunately, the City was held only partially at fault. The Portland City Council paid the plaintiff an $80,000 settlement. The majority of fault fell on Oregon Oils, which had to pay $145,000.

A cautionary tale

Though this incident took place in Oregon rather than California, it provides a cautionary tale for public entities everywhere. Any lawsuit, even one in which the city is not completely at fault, can prove time-consuming and expensive. Public entities and their attorneys have a variety of options; often, the most beneficial is to settle out of court. This incident is also a reminder that sewage issues are common torts that cities face. Even a minor leak can cause thousands of dollars in damage and bring a dreaded lawsuit--not to mention bad publicity that really stinks.

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