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Sewer Backup Claim Prevention

Sewer Backup Claim Prevention

By Mike Wagner, CIRSA Claims Manager

You’ve heard the saying that “crap flows downhill.” Yes, it’s true at least 99% of the time. As everyone knows, it’s that pesky 1% in life that causes the problems every time. Like when sewage decides to flow uphill.

In 1687 Sir Issac Newton published his laws of motion and universal gravitation called Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. Apparently, Mr. Newton was a pretty smart guy, and this book was a pretty big deal. However, I’m just an adjuster, so I don’t know about that. What I can say from observation over the past 26 years is that there is some truth to how these laws apply to sewer backup claims.

Newton’s First Law of Motion states that an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. In the world of sanitary sewer lines we are talking about tree roots, a grease ball, or a foreign object, such as a diaper, introduced to the sewer system that stops gravity and motion from doing their job. This is never a good situation.

While Newton’s First Law of Motion is extremely important, in the world of sewer backups it is Newton’s Third Law of Motion that gets everyone’s attention. This law states that For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Said another way, when sewage enters someone’s basement, the amount of yelling and frustration that occurs is proportionate to the amount of sewage that enters their basement and the response that is provided by your entity.

Quite a bit can be said about adhering to a reasonable inspection and maintenance schedules. It is also important to understand the potential liabilities your entity faces, as well as, your immunities under the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act. CIRSA’s Loss Control Department has resources that can help with your inspection and maintenance program, and our Claim Department can assist with answering questions regarding governmental immunity and liability on claims. However, what I would like to focus on is what you can do now to help with future problems, and what you/your staff should not do when responding to one of these stressful events. It is how you respond to this equal and opposite reaction that can make all the difference. Here are some thoughts…

Train your public works personnel on claim response issues. The public works crew members who respond to the site of a sewer backup are your first line of both customer service and defense. Make sure you’ve equipped them with the knowledge and training they need to respond appropriately.

Provide your employees with a checklist for sewer backup response. Rehearse with them what they should and shouldn’t say, and create a handout that they can give to the homeowner providing information on steps they can take to sanitize and mitigate their loss. There are ways in which your public works personnel can help and provide good customer service without making blunders that may unfairly raise expectations and make resolution much more difficult.

Make sure they know what they should and shouldn’t say. Any statement to the effect that “We’ll take care of everything for you” is a very big problem. It has the potential to create an enormous amount of frustration and inflated expectations, and is the promise that never ends.

CIRSA will stand behind you with respect to the payment of damages to a claimant, but only if governmental immunity does not bar the claim. So if you’ve made a promise to the property owner (such as “we’ll take care of everything for you”), this promise will have to be fulfilled and may be incongruent with your CIRSA coverage.

Don’t contract directly with a cleanup company. When it is 8:00 at night and someone is yelling at you on the phone, it is difficult to not make promises or try to resolve the problem by calling a contractor yourself. Some CIRSA members have been pressured to contract directly with a disaster recovery company to perform a cleanup at a residence after a backup. That’s a big mistake, for several reasons:

  • CIRSA’s coverage only provides indemnity in the event we determine you are liable under the law to pay damages. If you’ve contracted with a cleanup company, and we determine that governmental immunity bars the claim, then you’re on your own with respect to your contractual commitment to pay the cleanup company!
  • Your entity may appear as a deep pocket, and not every contractor is ethical. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the cleanup company will act as though it’s hit the jackpot. There have been instances when we’ve reviewed cleanup company bills that are grossly out of line in terms of the price charged for the work done. If you’ve committed to the company to pay whatever they charge, then you’ve put us all in an untenable position.
  • If you’re the one contracting with the cleanup company, the claimant’s going to blame you in the event of any dissatisfaction with the company’s work. Keep yourself out from the middle of such a mess by insisting that the claimant take the responsibility for selecting, contracting with, and overseeing the work of, the cleanup company.

Contact CIRSA immediately in the event of a backup incident. Take yourself out of the hot seat, file a claim and give your CIRSA claim adjuster a call as soon as you find out about a backup incident. These claims can be very traumatic for property owners and can make emotions boil over. They can also make a residence uninhabitable, which will drive up the value of the loss. These claims NEVER get better by waiting, so contact us as quickly as possible.

Like I said, it’s the pesky 1% that will cause problems every time. Obviously a proactive maintenance program is essential in keeping these losses to a minimum. But even the best maintenance program can’t prevent every backup from occurring. That’s why your immediate response afterward is important. Thinking through the problem before it happens, having a planned response in place, and training your employees in that plan can make everything go much smoother when Mr. Newton’s laws of physics kick in.

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