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City sued over Dundalk water main break

Frances Ebert, 91, doesn’t remember many of the details of the destructive 2009 water main break that sent more than four feet of sewer water rushing into the basement of her Dundalk home.

But she remembers the general outcome.

“It was a mess, I’ll tell you that,” Ebert said Monday.

Michael F. Connolly of the Law Offices of Joseph S. Lyons, filed a lawsuit last week against the Baltimore Department of Public Works on Ebert’s behalf for the damage caused when the 72-inch water main ruptured on Sept. 18, 2009.

Ebert, who lives on McShane Way, joins 14 other residents of that street and Loganview Drive who filed a similar suit in March under Connolly’s guidance. They are asking for $100,000 each, but the city’s lawyers have answered with an eight-point rebuttal that they say outlines why the city is not liable.

Both Ebert’s lawsuit and that of the other 14 plaintiffs blame the city for installing a faulty water main “without having it properly tested,” and claim that all flood damage from the 2009 rupture was “caused solely by the negligence” of the city.

“I think it’s a case where the city clearly has some liability,” Connolly said. “I think my clients deserve to be compensated for the property that they lost and the inconvenience they suffered.”

The city, in its written response, “generally denies the allegations contained in the complaint” and goes on to say that the city “is immune from the suit under the doctrine of governmental immunity.”

Connolly disagreed with that in a telephone interview Tuesday.

“Under the (state) tort claims act, I can bring a lawsuit for negligence and it’s my contention that the city was negligent in the procurement, installation and maintenance of the pipe that burst,” Connolly said.

Daniel W. Goldberg in the city law department said he could not comment on pending litigation.

Jefferson L. Blomquist, a lawyer with Funk & Bolton who is not involved in the case but has handled issues of governmental immunity since 1988, said immunity was meant to balance the rights of individual plaintiffs against the need to spend limited public funds to provide essential public services, such as running water.

“Do the math,” Blomquist said. “Do you want the money spent on individual claimants, or do you want the money spent on fixing and replacing the water system?”

A trial date has been set for April 10, 2012, in the suit for the 14 plaintiffs. If allowed to go forward, it could have major implications in a city with an aging and increasingly fragile infrastructure.

When asked about the 2009 rupture, public works spokesman Kurt Kocher joked, “There’s about 5,000 water main breaks I’ve dealt with since then.”

When asked if that was an exaggeration, Kocher quickly estimated the actual number in his head and said, “That’s probably not too far off.” He noted that the city sometimes had 25 to 50 ruptures in a day during particularly bad weather.

Kocher added that there have been no ruptures of the magnitude of the 2009 Dundalk break in the two years since then. That pipe, he said, was made by Interpace Corp. and installed in 1977. The day it ruptured, Kocher called it part of a “national infrastructure crisis.”

According to the Denver Business Journal, Interpace was the subject of a number of lawsuits before it went into bankruptcy in 1991. At the time it was a division of the Madison Management Group, owned by media and real estate mogul Sam Zell.

The Dundalk water main was large enough for an adult to stand inside and it unleashed a torrent of brown water for two hours until it was shut off. The result was a disaster that cut power, collapsed roadways and flooded cars and basements.

Ebert’s daughter, Eileen Swann, 55, owns the house next door on McShane Way and is one of the 14 plaintiffs in the other suit. She said she and many of the neighbors had finished basements at the time — basements that were completely ruined.

“When it came up there was like 50 inches of water in the basement,” Swann said. “There are 12 steps down there and the water was four steps from the top.”

Swann’s daughter, Erika Swann, lives in the house next to Ebert’s and is also part of the lawsuit. Swann said Erika had a 52-inch flat-screen television in the basement that was ruined, along with an accompanying Nintendo Wii and games.

Swann said she and her mother’s insurance claims were denied because they were not covered against “sewage backup,” and the suit against the city might be their last chance to recoup some of the property losses and the $5,000 fee for professional cleaning.

“We’re trying to get back what we can,” Swann said. “Anything’s better than nothing.”