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Families face off with Thurmont
 of sewer back-ups

Stephanie Long

(5/17) New Year’s Day 2003 was no holiday for the Patrick family of Thurmont.

Around 6 p.m. Robert Patrick’s young daughter came up out of the basement saying she had heard a noise and was afraid. Robert went downstairs and found water frothing up from the toilet, flooding the basement. He placed a towel and a big rock on the toilet in an attempt to keep the lid down and sewage in. When the sewage continued to spill out, he called the town emergency number.

This is part of the testimony Robert gave in court on May 9 as a four-year-old case finally came to trial. The Patricks and eight other Thurmont families are suing the town for $9 million problems related to sewage back-ups in their houses in 2003.

The town’s response

Gary Dingle, Thurmont water and sewer department head, showed up to assess the problem in response to the call. Dingle informed the Patricks that a pump at the sewage treatment plant had failed, causing sewage to back up and flood their home, but assured them it was a freak accident and would not happen again.

Rachel Patrick, Robert’s wife, said that in spite of Dingle’s assurances she did not feel her home was safe to live in and, “Never really stopped cleaning.”

On the morning of May 16, the Patrick family experienced the nightmare again. Rachel knew what to do from experience and jumped into action calling the town emergency number.

After several hours the sewage stopped pouring into the Patricks’ home and the cleanup began. The fire department pumped out the sewage and a professional cleaning service cleaned up the basement. According to Robert and Rachel Patrick, the second time around the flooding had been more severe and the family ended up loosing personal belongings, such as family pictures. The town had also attempted to prevent further flooding in the homes by pumping out the manholes in front of the homes. The Patrick’s claimed that this caused a lot of noise and disruption.

Robert went on to say that after the second flooding, they handed in receipts to the town and were told that they would be reimbursed for the expenses incurred due to the flood. Although the town did give them a check for $2,000, the Patricks claim they were never fully reimbursed. Insurance companies did reimburse the Patricks nearly $72,000, but after the Patrick’s house flooded for the third time on June 2, 2003 and they had yet to receive their full reimbursement from the town, the Patricks decided to take the town to court.

Filing the lawsuit

On May 16, 2003 other neighbors on their street experienced flooding as well and decided to join the lawsuit against the town. On June 24, 2004, the case was filed. According to court documents, Wayne and Tina Brown, Ron and Kathy Bishop, Harold and Paula Furr, John and Kim Lavigne, Marida and Paula Matweecha, Robert and Rachel Patrick, Robert and Deborah Massett, Andrew and Beth Linker and Randy and Holly Valentine filed suit as plaintiffs against Thurmont Town, Thurmont Board of Commissioners, and Thurmont Town et al for $9 million. Each party is suing for $500,000 to $600,000, except for the Patrick’s suit for $800,000.

The jury trial began on May 7, 2007 nearly three years later. The plaintiffs allege the techniques used to maintain the sewer system at the time of the incidents were not up-to-date and the town did not fix the problem as they said they would after the first incident. Several of the plaintiffs claimed they cannot sell their home because the flooding has depreciated the value of their affected homes making them virtually worthless.

The town’s defense

According to Thurmont Mayor Martin Burns at the time of the incidents the sewer system was state of the art and since the May 16 incident the town has spent $1.6 million on sewer repairs and $700,000 on inflow and infiltration repairs.

“Once we realized that this may not be a single occurrence, we took action to fix it,” Burns said. “We’ve done everything prudently possible to mitigate it.”

Also, the town is currently trying to get a $4 million grant to fix other sewers in town, Dingle said.

As for the allegation that the damaged homes have depreciated in value due to the flooding, several of the homeowners have refinanced their homes, some several times, but did not disclose the damage to the lenders, yet they received a maximum value for their homes. “How can you claim a loss of value when you’ve refinanced to the maximum value of the house?” Burns asked.

Burns also contends the town only pumped water out of the manholes because they wanted to prevent the homes from flooding again.

Also, since the May 16 incident four years ago no other homes have experienced flooding except for a June 3 incident in which Robert Patrick’s basement flooded due to a contractor error, Burns said.

The two parties have debated as to what could have caused the sewer to backup in the first place. According to Dingle and Burns, heavy rain fell the day before and the day of the May 16 incident.

“We had 5.2 inches of rain within a 24 hour period before the 16th of May,” Burns said. “The creek next to the town office was nearly overflowing.”

The amount of rain that fell could have lead to the sewer becoming flooded Burns and Dingle said.

“We haven’t determined any specific reason except there was too much water coming in,” Dingle said.

However, several of the plaintiffs testified the rain was not heavier than normal on May 15 or May 16. According to several inches of rain had fallen on the Fredrick area by 8 a.m. May 16.

As of May 11 the plaintiffs had rested their case and the defense was to begin trying their case May 14. Also, the Linkers case was dismissed because they did not disclose it in a bankruptcy.

A decision is expected by May 18.

How events have progressed

  • January 1, 2003 - Around 6 p.m. the Patricks discover sewage in their basement.
  • May 16, 2003 - Around 7 a.m. or so the plaintiffs discover sewage in their basements.
  • June 3, 2003 - The Patricks basement floods a third time.
  • June 24, 2004 - The suit is filed.
  • Fall 2004 – A detailed inspection of town sewer system reveals problems.
  • July 27, 2005 - Consent agreement between Thurmont and Maryland Department of the Environment finalized.
  • March 2006 - $1.6 million sewer repair project undertaken.
  • May 7, 2007 - The jury trial starts.
  • May 11, 2007 - The plaintiffs rest their case.
  • May 14, 2007 - The defense begins their case.

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