Entities that operate sewer systems experience occasional backup or overflows. When one of these events occurs, employees and elected officials need to know how to respond. Who is responsible for property damage? Do leaders understand what liability coverage is in place to protect their entity from lawsuits or claims?
Four key steps can help create an effective backup and overflow prevention program, and manage the liability associated with the sewer system.
1. Document complaints about backups.
Documentation should include these items:
- The names of the individuals making the complaint and their interest in the property.
- The location of the sewer backup.
- The date and time that the complaint was received.
- Who received the complaint.
- Action that was taken regarding the complaint.
All system inspections, maintenance and repairs should also be documented, along with the dates they were performed, the names of the personnel who completed them and the results.
2. Map out the system.
Most sewer systems are mapped. The sewer system map should include numbered manhole covers, all lift or pump stations, and the location of complaints. This will help track complaints and identify areas of the system that may need to be fixed.
3. Fix the problem areas.
Ongoing scheduled system inspection, cleaning and preventative maintenance should exist in writing. This provides documentation that the city is maintaining the system. As the scheduled inspections and cleanings take place, workers should focus on the problem areas within the system. Plan and schedule cleaning for these areas at least twice a year. An uninspected line that hasn’t been cleaned is typically responsible for backups.
4. Educate employees and the public about their responsibilities during a sewer backup or overflow event.
The manner in which municipal employees communicate with residents who experience a sewer backup can influence whether a claim or lawsuit is filed. Employees should acknowledge the concern of a resident and be ready to answer what actions the city will take in response to the issue and when it will occur. Workers can also provide residents with suggestions about precautions to take to help prevent these types of events in the future.
Municipal employees should not discuss who is at fault for a backup or overflow. Educate employees so they understand that responding to a sewer backup or overflow event does not mean accepting responsibility for the damage. Acceptance of liability should be determined by the claims adjuster after an investigation has taken place.
Staff should create educational documents, fact sheets and brochures detailing the causes of backups and overflows. Explain certain items such as cooking grease and debris should not be disposed of in sinks, toilets or drains as these materials can cause backups and overflows.
Residents should be encouraged to have a backflow device, and understand they are responsible for maintaining their lateral line.
These four steps are key to identifying areas of concern within a sewer system and proactively working to fix issues. A program of this nature will not only reduce the number of backups experienced in a system, but will also demonstrate the duty of care that should be exercised to reduce potential liability for these types of events.
Any local government employee or elected official who may receive a complaint from the public should have a basic understanding of the sewer backup prevention program and where to direct a complaint so it can be properly documented. The Municipal Association’s Risk Management Services offers a sewer back up toolkit that provides practical, straight forward information to help employees respond promptly and accurately to sewer backups.
Reprinted in part from Public Entity Partners News — June 2022.