Most of the time when a utility like a sewer fails clean up and repair follow at costs low enough for the local church, like any other property owner, to absorb. But, when it is a disastrous backup from a city maintained line the damage from which is either not insured at all, or inadequately insured, further investigation of the cause may be required. If the cause is not the church building or its people, it may be the municipality providing the sewer line. If it is, the church may have to proceed with a claim for reimbursement of its damages.

In Crestwood Vineyard Church, Inc. v City of Oklahoma City, 2020 OK CIV APP 3, the trial court’s summary judgment in favor of the city was reversed. The church timely filed a tort claim notice in compliance with the state tort claim statute that required filing of the notice. Without such a properly filed notice, the lawsuit may have been barred. When the city denied the claim, or by operation of law it was denied, the church filed suit. The trial court entered summary judgment because the city proved it had no user complaints from the sewer line in the five years prior to the incident. The sewer back up into the basement of the church was cleaned out by the city but the damage to the basement was extensive. The appellate court held that while the lack of a user complaint to the city indicated the city did not have that type of notice, the city had not proven it lacked notice by virtue of its own maintenance records. On remand to the trial court, the church will have the opportunity to prove through sewer maintenance records, if the church can do so, that the city had another form of notice.

A large city may or may not have records that are reliable as to whether there were, indeed, user complaints. Complaints may come from so many sources that complaint tracking for a government entity is a technological and records preservation challenge. A church in such a situation should check with the neighbors, such as other users on the same sewer line. Whether maintenance records will prove the matter one way or another may also be problematic. A large city covering many square miles and managing substantial infrastructure may or may not have records of completeness and clarity. Gaps in maintenance records, if any, may be more valuable than the records themselves.

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