Sewer Back-Up Liability
Water from the sanitary sewer or the storm sewer system can be the source of sewer back-up. Listed below are the most frequent causes:
● Blocked sewers due to grease from residences or restaurants
● Insufficient capacity to drain storm water during extremely heavy rainfalls
● Inadequate slope in the system
● Overloading of the sanitary system by having sumps and weeping tiles discharging into them instead of into the storm sewers
● Blocked or restricted sewers due to tree roots or build-up of silt or other debris
● Failure of joints
● Blocked catch basins
● Breakage or collapse of pipes due to age or natural forces
● Damage to pipes or blockages while lines are being worked on
Sewer Back-Up Coverage for Property Owners
Insurance coverage is usually available for sewer back-up under homeowner or commercial policies. However, coverage may be subject to a deductible or restricted terms. For example, coverage may be removed after frequent claims, or it may not be available in communities with ongoing problems.
Property owners should avail of their insurance coverage before trying to recover damages from the municipality. If claims are paid under the property owner's policy, their insurer will often attempt to recover money from the municipality after paying a claim to the property owner.
However, there are ways to prevent sewer back-up liability:
● Implement an appropriate bylaw outlining which materials can be put in the sewer system, including grease from restaurants
● Regularly inspect and flush lines
● Utilize in-line camera equipment to check lines during routine maintenance and after blockages occur
● Clean catch basins on a regular basis (preferably every spring to remove sand).
● Alarm pumps at lift stations to provide for early detection of malfunctioning equipment.
● Establish policies and procedures for dealing with call-outs and complaints.
● Procedures should include instructions to be given immediately to the caller as to what they can do to prevent further damage, who will respond and when.
● Inform property owners regularly as to what their responsibilities are and what to do to help prevent occurrences and resultant damage and of the municipality's responsibilities
● Monitor restaurant owners for grease dumping
● Install grease traps and clean-outs and enforce your bylaw relating to acceptable substances
● Notify the property owners in the affected area to allow them an opportunity to mitigate their damages
● Encourage property owners to install backflow prevention devices to reduce risk
● Create a brochure for Public Works staff to give to property owners in the event of a loss. This should give information on contacting their own insurer, facts about negligence and nuisance, how to mitigate damages, the procedure for making claims against the municipality, etc.
While a municipality cannot be held liable for actions based on nuisance with respect to the operation of a public utility, there are circumstances where municipal liability is a concern. These circumstances include negligence during repair or maintenance, failure to maintain the system, failure to enforce a bylaw and more.
In Canada, provincial Municipal Government Acts provide that a municipality cannot be held liable for actions based on nuisance with respect to the operation of a public utility. This includes the operation of water and sewage (waste water) systems. Municipalities can, however, be held liable in the following circumstances (please note that this list is not exhaustive):
● Failure to adequately maintain the system or produce documentation to prove the system was adequately maintained
● Negligence during repair or maintenance operations
● Failure to appropriately respond to a notification of a problem or to rectify recurring problems
● Failure to enforce a bylaw with respect to allowable uses of the system
● Interrupted drainage patterns due to municipal operations such as snow removal or construction activities
● Failure to properly locate water lines when requested to do so by contractors