Court: Utility can be held liable for damage caused by watermain break

By: - May 22, 2023 4:53 pm

The Iowa Supreme Court says a municipal utility can be held liable for damages to private property that result from a watermain break. (Photo by Jared Strong/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The Iowa Supreme Court has affirmed a lower-court ruling that suggests a municipal utility can be held liable for damages to private property that result from a watermain break.

Jim and Angela Sutton had sued the Council Bluffs Water Works, alleging their home was seriously damaged when a watermain near an intersection close to their home broke, causing water to flow to the surface. The Suttons alerted the Water Works to the problem and, over the next eight weeks, crews inspected and repaired breaks to the pipe on five separate occasions.

Eventually, the break led to a pool of standing water that the Suttons said caused their house to settle, resulting in damage to the foundation, interior walls, garage floors and doors. The couple sued Water Works under two legal theories including strict liability, which doesn’t require proof of actual negligence or an intent to do harm.

The Water Works argued that the Iowa Municipal Tort Claims Act doesn’t allow for strict-liability claims against utilities of its kind, but the district court ruled otherwise, which led to an appeal and put the matter before the Iowa Supreme Court.

In a previous case dating back to the mid-1960s, the court determined that a municipality could be held liable under a theory of strict liability for damages resulting from an underground watermain break. The reasoning in that case was that it wasn’t reasonable that a city engaged in a proprietary activity could deliberately and intentionally plan to leave a watermain underground, beyond the reach of inspection and maintenance, until a break occurs, and then escape all liability for damage that a break would cause.

The city, the court reasoned, “knows that eventually a break will occur, water will escape and in all probability flow onto the premises of another with resulting damage … When the expected and inevitable occurs, they should bear the loss and not the unfortunate individual whose property is damaged without fault of his own.”

Three years after that ruling, the Iowa Legislature enacted the Iowa Municipal Tort Claims Act.

The Council Bluffs Water Works argued the act eliminated the right to pursue claims against municipalities that the act itself doesn’t explicitly authorize, and that the law prohibits claims based on strict liability. In their ruling Friday, the justices rejected that argument, reinforcing the court’s previous findings.

“Water Works’ argument can’t overcome the plain meaning of the text,” the court said. “Applying the plain language of the statute, strict-liability claims are torts for which parties can pursue claims under the act.”


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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing.