WGN Investigates a little known Illinois law that can cause a big financial burden to homeowners. And many learn about it the hard way.
But for cities and towns across the state, we found accepting responsibility of a failed sewer system doesn’t mean having to write a check.
On a recent sunny day in Libertyville, school teacher and homeowner Mary Tiegs had raw sewage swamping her home.
Tiegs says she saved what she could while anxiously awaiting the arrival of a plumber.
The plumber determined the back-up occurred out front, under the street, in the sewer line owned and maintained by the Village of Libertyville
It was a Sunday, so Tiegs called police asking for them to page the public works department. At first she was told to wait till Monday.
“I was told ‘be persistent and call back,’ she says. ‘At that point we called the village and said ‘Look, you have to call somebody! It’s coming into the house. It hasn’t stopped. It keeps rising.’”
A few hours after the flood began, the village finally sent someone out. Grease from some nearby restaurants was the culprit.
Public works employees stopped the flow of sewage. But Tiegs’ problems were only just beginning.
The public works employee said it’s the village’s fault. The plumber said the village is at fault. And the village said ‘Sorry, we won’t pay.’”
Clean-up costs came to more than $8,000. Tiegs’ estimates restoring her basement may cost up to $30,000.
Tiegs’ insurer told her the village’s sewer caused the damage so it’s up to the village to pay for her repairs.
But Libertyville’s response says it doesn’t have to because of something called the “Illinois Tort Immunity Act.” The village’s insurer wrote it is “not legally liable for this sudden and unexpected occurrence.”
Municipal law attorney Mike Salvi says government gets a free pass “unless” it can be proven a village like Libertyville “knew” in advance about the problem and “failed” to fix it.
“The rules that apply to you and me typically would require that we be financially responsible for our negligence. Those rules don’t apply to villages, municipalities and cities,” he says. “If the regular rules of fault and liability applied to them, they would have liability to such a wide breadth of people, so many people, that would be overly burdensome for the municipality. … Everyone would sue them and then ultimately the taxpayers would be responsible for covering that liability.”
More than two months after the flood, Tiegs, a single mom, is left feeling high and dry by the village she’s lived in all her life.
Libertyville’s public works director said while he sympathizes with the homeowner’s situation, as long as the village properly maintained the sewer – which he says they did – it’s not liable.