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Town may face more lawsuits

Chris Patterson
The Gazette

(2/12) Heavy rains recently caused the Town of Thurmont to take extraordinary measures to avoid more sewage backups into residences on Ironmaster Court, but affected families say the measures won't give them back the one thing they really want ­ peace of mind.

And despite the pumping, the town is facing eight lawsuits from residents -- to be filed within the next two weeks -- asking for total damages in the millions of dollars, according to an attorney for the families.

Town staff started pumping rising sewage from the sewer hole in front of Rob and Rachel Patrick's home at about 10 a.m. on Friday.

The sewage was pumped into the storm drain that ultimately pours into the sediment pond behind the Patricks' home.

Water superintendent Gary Dingle said appropriate state agencies were aware of the pumping, which has been done on previous occasions to avoid a repeat of backups and damage to the homes that occurred in 2003.

Dingle said the town regularly checks the levels of sewage in the neighborhood sewer lines and pumps the lines when the levels get high in order to avoid a backup into houses.

"It reached that level this morning and we started pumping," Dingle said Friday. "We had to start pumping or we would have a potential problem."

The Patricks' home and others on the street were flooded with sewage on Jan. 1, 2003, and again suffered damage on May 16, 2003.

Some of the homeowners needed to live in a hotel, with family, or in a motor home in their driveways while repair work to their homes was done.

Rachel Patrick said it is the fear of the unknown that mostly plagues her family. She said she can't even potty train her young son -- he won't sit on a toilet in the house because he is terrified of what will come up out of it, she said.

Adding to the financial losses the Patricks have suffered, the couple was recently told by a real estate agent that the house could not be sold because of the problems, they said. Even if a buyer came to look at the house and didn't know about the problems, the Patricks would be forced by law to disclose the flooding.

An appraisal on the house came back at 50 percent of the market value for other homes in the area, Rachel Patrick said.

The Patricks filed a claim on May 16, 2003 with the town's insurance company, Cincinnati Insurance, and received a response to that claim nine months later, on Feb. 3, according to Rob Patrick.

Rob Patrick wrote in an e-mail to The Gazette that he felt "betrayed and abandoned."

"In response to our claims, the town's insurance company...has literally offered only pennies on the dollar in response to six of the eight claims [the Patricks submitted], and refused to make an offer in response to two of the claims," Rob Patrick wrote. "...We have made every effort to resolve this issue amicably, and I believe we've received little more than lies, broken promises and insults in return. The town and their insurance company have clearly stated through their actions that they only want to resolve this conflict in court."

One of the claims, Rachel Patrick said, is for $61,000 worth of computer equipment her husband uses in his business.

The Patricks, along with other homeowners, are contemplating filing suit against the town as a result of the problems and the lack of satisfaction they say they are getting on their claims.

Eight families on Ironmaster Court notified the town last summer that they intended to sue, but the town has not yet been served with any lawsuits.

Mayor Martin Burns said Wednesday that the town has not stated or implied that the matter should be resolved in court.

"The last thing the town wants to do is to get this into court," he said.

Burns characterized the pending legal action as "unfortunate" and said the town didn't know until recently -- when Rob Patrick sent him an e-mail -- about problems with the insurance company's handling of claims.

"We've been focusing our efforts on repairing the [sewer] problems," he said. "We didn't know the families weren't getting satisfaction with their claims. That's something the board wants to know about.

"Obviously we have to go through our insurance company and if they are not getting satisfaction, then I want to intervene. I want to find out how much was paid and, if under fair and reasonable [compensation], we want to know why," he said.

Attorney John E. Coppock Jr. in Baltimore is representing the families involved in the suits and said Tuesday the suits will be filed next week.

The insurance company was given a deadline by the families to satisfactorily offer compensation for losses by the end of January, and that deadline has passed, Coppock said.

"There's not going to be any other letter that says 'you sure you don't want to think about that?'" he said. "...If the offers had been in the middle of road or at least on the road, there would have been room for dialogue."

Damage estimates by the families vary, but range between $300,000 and $500,000 dollars each, Coppock said. Those costs don't include other damages, such as for "loss of use and enjoyment," Coppock said.

"These folks didn't ask to be downstream waste receptacles for an aging sewer system," Coppock said.

Burns said he knows the families have been through a lot and believes they should get "as much money as possible for their claims under the law."

He said he is planning to contact the Patricks and perhaps their attorney to see if the town can get more time to try to intervene in the situation and avoid a lawsuit.

The town needs time to get involved, investigate and see what can be done, Burns said. He intends to ask the families to give the town until May 2004 ­ one year from the largest backup incident ­ to resolve the problems before going to court.

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