By Anna Douglas
A Rock Hill family is suing the city of Rock Hill, claiming that faulty utility lines caused sewage to back up in their basement for 20 days, unleashing harmful bacteria and costing thousands of dollars to fix.
After nearly two years of asking the city and its insurance company for reimbursement and being told “no,” the Pennell family felt a lawsuit was the only option, Randi Pennell told The Herald last week.
Pennell, 34, estimates she and her husband, Wayne, 37, have spent at least $40,000 in clean-up expenses, medical visits and environmental testing because of problems in their home.
Their daughters, ages 4 and 9, have experienced chronic sinus issues that were probably caused when the sewage problem and the bacteria in their home exacerbated existing health issues, she said.
The family’s suit states that Rock Hill officials “knew or should have known” that the city’s sewage system was likely to fail before sewage starting flowing into the Pennells’ basement on Dec. 9, 2010.
After investigating, Rock Hill’s utility department crews couldn’t find any evidence that the city was at fault for the Pennell family’s issue, said Jimmy Bagley, deputy city manager who oversees the city’s utility operations.
“They had damage–that’s obvious,” he said. “But it’s not obvious what caused it.”
The Pennell family and their lawyer say in the lawsuit that past work order records from the city’s utilities department demonstrate a re-occurring problem with the main sewage line.
There were past work orders, and the city monitored the line as it would any other utility line, Bagley said. Still, there was no indication that the city’s line had any problem that was neglected, he said.
Work orders show that the Pennell family called the city of Rock Hill in October 2006 to report a sewer smell in their yard, near one of the city’s sewer lift stations.
City workers fixed the lift station problem, according to the records.
Records also show the city worked on sewer utility lines for three of the Pennells’ neighbors between 2006 and 2009.
The Pennell’s problem is unfortunate, Bagley said, but Rock Hill has not neglected the sewer lines in their neighborhood.
In the past, when the city has determined their facilities caused an issue for a customer, Rock Hill has paid to take care of the problem, he said.
In the Pennells’ case, if Rock Hill officials “thought we had any liability at all, we would have tried to settle it to save the expense of going forward with any kind of case,” Bagley said. “If we’ve made a mistake, we’ve paid.”
The problem left Wayne and Randi Pennell using a wet/dry vacuum cleaner to suction what they believe was raw sewage out of their basement.
The first sign of a problem happened on Dec. 9, 2010, Randi Pennell said. The family had plans to travel to Chapel Hill, N.C., for a medical visit for one of their daughters.
Before leaving, they noticed bad smells and sewage leaking into their basement, she said. The liquid contained small rocks, sediment and toilet paper, she said.
A plumber told the family he couldn’t find a leak in their home and advised them to turn off their water main while they were out of town, Pennell said. When they returned, she said, their basement was flooded with sewage again.
The Pennells argue that if the plumbing problem had been inside their home or had there had been a backup in a pipe on their property, shutting off the water main should have stopped the sewage from flooding.
Instead, the backup continued to wreck their basement, Pennell said, and two plumbers couldn’t find a problem inside the house. To the family, that indicated the issue must be on the city’s side of the sewage line.
The Pennell family’s lawsuit, filed by Spartanburg attorney Gary Poliakoff, states the city was “negligent” by not maintaining its utility line for sewage service in the family’s Hitching Post Lane neighborhood.
The home, located off India Hook Road in northern Rock Hill, has “been significantly devalued as a result” of the sewage backup, the lawsuit states.
After the problem, the family continued to live in their home because of financial constraints. Family members were exposed to toxic mold, bacilli and fungi, according to the lawsuit.
The city’s attorney, David Morrison of Columbia, filed an answer to the Pennells’ claims one month after the family filed suit in December.
In the legal filing, Rock Hill denies it was responsible for any sewage backup in the Pennells’ home and that South Carolina’s law gives the city immunity from the claims.
Morrison did not return phone calls from The Herald seeking comment.
The sewage problem stopped 20 days after it started when a city of Rock Hill crew fixed the problem at her home, Pennell said.
A city utility work order shows that Rock Hill replaced a four-inch service line extending from its main line under the road to the Pennells’ yard. Pennell says she was told by city officials that the work was done “as a favor.”
“If I was responsible, they never would have footed the bill,” she said.
Bagley says the work performed on Dec. 29 near the Pennells’ home was standard procedure.
After the Pennells alerted the city about their backup issue, crews discovered that a new service line on the home’s property had been installed without the city’s knowledge, he said.
The Pennells’ home is located in York County, outside Rock Hill city limits.
Sometimes homeowners upgrade their water or sewer lines, Bagley said, and it’s standard for the city to upgrade the other part of the service line soon after to “match” the investment.
The upgrade usually costs the city an average of about $2,200, he said.
Because the upgrade on the Pennells’ property didn’t require a city permit and city inspectors weren’t notified of the work, the second part of the service line upgrade happened after the problem in the family’s home, he said.
But, city crews found no evidence that the new service line work on Dec. 29, 2010, would have prevented the damage in the family’s home, Bagley said.
In the lawsuit, the Pennells are seeking restitution for cleanup and legal fees and punitive damages for their daughters’ exacerbated health problems, Randi Pennell said.
The sewage problem ruined a hot water drain, carpet and furniture, she said. Their air-conditioning unit needs to be replaced, she said.
A mold and mildew expert found “bacillus”–a bacteria–in places where the sewage overflowed, she said, and multiple tests cost the family about $1,500 each.
Randi Pennell “bent over backward,” she said, in trying to prove to the city’s insurance claims adjuster that the family’s problems were Rock Hill’s fault.
“I jumped through every flaming hoop that they wanted me to,” she said.
Eventually, the insurance firm told the family that the city had no prior notice of a problem and was shielded from paying restitution under the state’s tort law, Pennell said.
Over the past two years, she attended City Council meetings to seek assistance but the insurance firm and the city continued to stall, she said.
The family and the city will go through court mediation before a trial, she said, and she hopes the mediation will make the family “whole” on what they’ve paid out over the past two years.
The issue is “cut and dry” as far as who is at fault, she said.
But, the city of Rock Hill has a differing opinion, Bagley said.
Prior calls to the neighborhood were not related to sewer backups, he said, and city crews who responded to the Pennell home aren’t even sure it was sewage in their basement.
“There’s some things that just happen,” he said. “Things happen to people all the time. It doesn’t mean that someone else caused it.”
Bagley said the city doesn’t doubt something happened to the Pennells’ basement because some city workers could see water damage.
“But nothing that would indicate we were negligent or had knowledge of that,” he said. “Or, that we could have done anything about it.”