Negligent Operation Of A Storm Sewer: A New Theory Of Climate Change Liability

by McCarter & English: Climate Change & Renewable Energy
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We have written many times about the flawed design of the nation's flood maps in an era of climate change.  And spoken about the potential for claims against professionals for failure to consider the effects of climate change in what they do.  On April 16, 2014 those two ideas manifested in a 143 page lawsuit filed in Cook County, Illinois asserting that local governments are at fault for flood damage that insurance companies had to pay for.  Illinois Farmers Insurance Co. v. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (attached).  Let us explain.

Flood maps are based on the historical record. Lots and lots of data over lots and lots of years, with one major underlying assumption:  the past is a reasonable basis for predicting the future. But what if it is not?  In that case a 100-year flood plain may actually be a 50-year or 25-year flood plain, or perhaps a 200-year flood plain. One can't know, absent some effort to predict the future.

This issue is not limited to FEMA flood maps. Storm water systems are sized based on the predicted 20-year or 50-year or even 100-year storm event. We have seen that terminology before and it signifies a similar result:  culvert sizing and flood protections suffer from the same defect as flood plain mapping - a retrospective view is not enough.  One might theorize that civil engineers, planners, and others involved in the design, construction and operation of stormwater systems have a duty to recognize this state of affairs and incorporate climate change effects into their activities.

On April 18 and 19, 2013 heavy rains in Cook County and elsewhere resulted in flooding.  Insurance companies paid millions on the claims.  Now Illinois Farmers Insurance Co. and others are seeking to recover those millions in the form of a class action on behalf of other insurers and property owners against the water reclamation district and municipal and county governments.  Of itself, that would not be particularly interesting.  But the allegations vault this case, and six other similar cases, to the top of the climate change litigation pantheon. 

The central theme in the complaint is that the local governments are at fault for flooding caused by mis-operated stormwater systems:  the “common, central and fundamental issue in this action is whether the Defendants have failed to safely operate retention basins, detention basins, tributary enclosed sewer and tributary open sewers/drains for the purpose of safely conveying storm water within Defendants' territorial jurisdictions"  ¶ 27. 

The defendant governments allegedly knew their systems were undersized.  In anticipation of heavy rains, they would pump down reservoirs and tunnels.  Climate change set the context:   "During the past 40 years, climate change in Cook County has caused rains to be of greater volume, greater intensity and greater duration than pre-1970 rainfall history evidenced, rendering the rainfall frequency return tables employed by the Reclamation District and each Named Municipal Defendant inaccurate and obsolete." ¶ 48. Plaintiffs assert that the climate change effects are admitted:  "In or around 2008, the Reclamation District, the County of Cook, the City of Chicago and other Municipal Defendants adopted the scientific principle that climate change has caused increases in rain fall amount, intensity and duration during a rain in Cook County as evidenced by their adoption of the Chicago Climate Action Plan. " ¶ 49.  

Next comes the allegation of knowledge of the specific hazard:  "This defendant knew that because of climate change causing increased rainfall, this defendant had to increase stormwater storage capacity of its stormwater sewer system(s) to prevent sewer water invasions." ¶ 51.  Thus, the local governments were alleged to be on notice that their infrastructure was insufficient to prevent harm to individuals and businesses.  The final point was that, notwithstanding this notice, in the face of a heavy rain (heavy, but not out of the ordinary based on either the historical record or a climate model), the governments failed to take steps to remedy the defect (i.e., the lack of storage capacity and conveyance capacity to address the rainfall).

With that prelude, plaintiffs allege three counts:  negligent maintenance of the stormwater system by failing to utilize temporary stormwater protection systems, failure to remedy a known dangerous condition (where stormwater invasions had occurred before), and an unlawful “taking” in that the governments had (it is alleged) appropriated the property of others for diversion and retention basins, etc.

This is a complaint we knew was coming, although we will candidly admit that we did not anticipate the plaintiffs. An insurance company as the plaintiff raises an interesting question.  Is the insurance industry intent on cannibalizing itself?  If Illinois Farmers prevails, it will start to establish a standard of care for both design professionals whose work is impacted by climate change, and for those who rely on such professionals.  Third parties injured by the failure of a stormwater system may bring claims against entities responsible for the systems.  So we will have theories of liability that will trigger liability policies, errors and omissions policies, and even directors and officers policies.  If all of them subrogate, like Illinois Farmers did, it takes no imagination to see the mess that will be created.  Even without subrogation, if the theory is successful, it will cut wide and deep.  It is surprising that an insurer would advocate for it.  

20140416 Illinois Farmers Ins. v. Metro. Water Reclamation Dist. of Greater Chicago.pdf (4.58 mb)

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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