Deja vu: Residents could be on the hook for water main break

Charles Mostoller

When a water main broke at 21st and Bainbridge in July 2012, more than 100 residents and some businesses claimed the rushing waters damaged electrical systems and basements full of mementos.

The city was on the hook for more than $1 million in damage. It paid out roughly half of what was claimed, thanks to an obscure state law called the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act. That law limits the city’s liability in accidents to $500,000.

After Sunday’s immense water main break near 52nd and Wyalusing, it’s possible that property owners could be left holding the bag again.

The full cost of damage to homes, businesses and cars may not be known for month. John Rawlins at 6ABC reports that 29 cars and 40 buildings were impacted by flooding.

But already, some officials are worrying about whether residents will be reimbursed for their losses.

“If we aren’t going to invest in infrastructure, then we need to expect these things to happen,” said State Rep. Brian Sims, who represents portions of the Graduate Hospital neighborhood. “But if we are going to expect these things to happen, we need to take steps to make sure that municipalities pay their fair share.”

The law has been on the books since 1980, and the cap hasn’t been adjusted since, Sims said.

He has introduced legislation to increase the cap to $1,250,000.

The Philadelphia Water Department says it responds to an average of 750 water main breaks each year. Most are for small pipes, about 6 to 8 inches.

Bigger ones, like the 36-inch pipe that burst Sunday can create enormous damage. (The biggest mains, by the way, are 93-inches, large enough to drive a Mini Cooper through.)

In the 2012 water main break, residents were on track to get just 19 cents on the dollar for their losses. That’s because two utilities, PECO and Verizon, filed claims for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Both companies filed reduced claims after negotiations with city and state legislators, according to Steve Cobb, an aide to Philadelphia Councilman Kenyatta Johnson.

Injured people have run up against the caps in other high. In 2013, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld a ruling that awarded $500,000 to a girl whose leg had to be amputated after she had been hit by a school bus in Pennsbury. That was a defeat for the girl, and a win for the school district, which successfully sought to have the $14 million jury award reduced under the law.

More from our Sister Sites