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From a flood day to a payday:

Thurmont families awarded $3.5 million in sewage case…for now

Stephanie Long
Thurmont Dispatch

(6/7) A jury in the Frederick County Circuit Court awarded seven Thurmont families nearly $3.5 million for damages resulting from a sewer backup occurring in their homes in 2003.

“They were thrilled,” said John E. Coppock Jr., one of the families’ lawyers. “They’re happy it’s over.”

The families involved in the suit were granted awards ranging from $317,101 to $699,733 for economic damages, property loss and pain and suffering. Coppock said that he was not surprised by the outcome of the trial and thought the award was fair and “right in line with the damages that they had to their homes.”

Not surprisingly, Thurmont Mayor Martin Burns did not agree with Coppock.

“I understand that it [the flooding] was horrible, but no one deserves $500,000 for it,” Burns said.

Burns said that he agreed that compensation should have been given to the families, but the amount awarded by the jury was excessive.

The defense has filed a post-trial motion in regards to the judges’ interpretation of the state tort protection for municipalities and counties. The defense claims that the act holds the town liable for only $500,000 per occurrence, and therefore the plaintiffs as a whole should have only been awarded $500,000 at the most, Burns said.

The judge interpreted the act differently, and ruled that although the homes were flooded by the same flooding event, each homeowner’s flooding was a separate occurrence and therefore each homeowner was entitled to separate compensation.
Within a few weeks a post-trial motion hearing will be held and the judge will rule on how the tort protection affects each individual award. It is expected that the judge will also decrease the total award by $848,500 because of a jury error, which granted each plaintiff an award for real property twice, Burns said.

In addition to filing post-trial motions, the defense is planning to appeal the ruling, Burns said.

Although it is not known on what grounds the defense will base their appeal, there could be discussion as to whether or not a specific document should have been admissible in court.

According to a building permit obtained by The Dispatch through the Freedom of Information Act, the Valentine family was instructed by the town of Thurmont that the construction of a basement in their home was not permitted and if it was, “In no way would the Commissioners of Thurmont be responsible for any damage done to this residence during flooding conditions.” The judge would not allow the permit to be entered into evidence during the trial and the Valentines were awarded over $300,000 by the jury.

To cover the cost of the award, Thurmont has raised the sewer rates $2 dollars per 1,000 gallons, Burns said, since it is still unknown if the town’s insurance will cover any part of the award. This increase will cost the average homeowner in Thurmont $120 a year more sewer fees.

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