The Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) announced Tuesday it would deny claims filed by more than 24,000 water and sewer customers related to the June 2021 basement flooding that impacted thousands of homes across Metro Detroit.
GLWA, which provides water and sewer service to the Detroit region, said in a statement that it would begin notifying claimants by mail that their claims are denied. The move comes after a more than 800-page report released last month found that the flooding was caused by “heavy and historic rainfall” that exceeded the system’s design capacity and not by a “defect in the regional collection system.”
According to the report, failures at several pumping stations likely exacerbated the floods but were not their primary cause. GLWA commissioned the report completed by civil infrastructure consulting firm AECOM.
“We understand the difficult situations homeowners and businesses face when flooding occurs,” Suzanne Coffey, GLWA’s chief executive officer, said in the statement. “We are experiencing increased frequency and intensity of storms hitting our region. This is why it’s critical to focus on building resiliency in the regional system.” As many as eight inches of rain fell in parts of the region over 24 hours during the June 15-26 storm.
In its statement, GLWA said its decision to deny claims rests on Michigan’s Governmental Liability for Negligence Act, which states that a public entity can be held liable for a sewage disposal system event only if a defect in its system was the “substantial proximate cause (50 percent or more of the cause)” of the event.
Attorney Paul Doherty with Ven Johnson Law represents more than 600 victims as part of a class action lawsuit against GLWA and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD). He called the announcement a “little bit of a grandstand moment.”
“This is all just part of [GLWA’s] delay-deny defense tactic,” Doherty told Planet Detroit.
He said the firm intends to have its experts examine the report and will subpoena engineering consultants and agency staff. Doherty, who experienced more than $100,000 in damages to his Grosse Pointe Park home due to last year’s flood, said he believes the malfunctioning pumps were a primary cause of the flooding.
“When you use common sense, you’ve got 16 massive storm pumps in the area, and only five out of 16 work. You don’t have to be a scientist to know that having only about a third of your pumps working will cause a problem,” Doherty said.
Ven Johnson Law is also intervening in a separate suit filed in Wayne County Circuit Court by the City of Grosse Pointe Park’s municipal insurance carrier U.S. Specialty Insurance Company. The insurer alleges it should not have to provide coverage to Grosse Pointe Park for its role in the event.
A second class action filed by Dubin Law is also proceeding. Past individual and class action suits filed against DWSD in the wake of basement flooding have settled with damages for plaintiffs, though such lawsuits typically take years.
Customers who filed a form with GLWA within 45 days of the event and were denied their claim are eligible to file suit, Doherty told Planet Detroit. “They still have the right to sue,” Doherty said. “They’ll have to duke it out in the courtroom with everybody else.”
Approximately 23,000 sewer backup claims submitted to the DWSD remain under review, the agency said in a Tuesday statement. It added that Wayne County residents can call Wayne Metro at 313-386-9727 about a new federal disaster mitigation program and that eligible households in 11 identified neighborhoods with historic backups should apply to the Detroit Basement Backup Protection Program at www.detroitmi.gov/basementprotection for assistance installing backflow preventers and sump pumps. DWSD had previously predicted those claims would be denied due to the report’s findings.
As of March, 39,000 households across the region had received some relief through the Federal Emergency Management Administration, according to a report from the Detroit Free Press and Outlier Media. But tens of thousands were denied or still waiting.
GLWA says it is focused on increasing the resiliency of the system.
“Even before the release of the final report from the Independent Investigators, GLWA began working to implement key infrastructure and process improvements to help address the stresses put on an infrastructure system not built for this level of rain,” Coffey said in the statement. “We remain committed to doing everything within our power and working closely with our infrastructure partners in southeast Michigan to help mitigate the impacts of climate change.”