Hiking in Pennsylvania. dollar cap for explored water main breaks

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A process designed to protect taxpayers’ money

After a water main break floods homes or businesses, the city funds some cleanup without requiring homeowners to go through a claims process. Water utility contractors clean basements and replace damaged furnaces and water heaters free of charge.

Homeowners must go through their insurance first before filing a claim with the city. But most homeowners insurance policies don’t cover this type of damage, said Barry Scott, the city’s risk manager in the office of the chief financial officer.

Faysal Elsaaby, owner of Lit & Company, holds a bag of bills that documents inventory he lost in a massive water main break last July. (Sophia Schmidt/WHY)

Within six months of a destructive water main break, homeowners must notify the city of their intent to file a claim. Then they have up to two years from the date of the breakup to gather photos or other documentation of the damage and submit a claim for any loss not covered by insurance, including loss of business. .

A municipal expert assesses the claim. The city only pays the actual dollar value of an item – calculated with a depreciation formula that takes into account the age of the item – rather than the replacement cost.

“The goal here is to make the plaintiff whole,” said the city’s chief assistant attorney, Ken Butensky. “A plaintiff is not entitled to a windfall.”

This is where the PA Local Government Per Incident Liability Cap comes in. When the claims of all homeowners affected by a single water main break exceed the $500,000 cap, the can hand over the money to a court to separate, as she did in the 2012 case. a handful of times over the past two decades, city officials said.

Scott said the cap was intended to protect taxpayers.

“Unlike a corporation, all of our revenue comes from taxpayers and taxpayers. And so at the end of the day, if we have to pay more, the only place we can get money is from our citizens, by increasing the costs associated with the services we provide or by increasing taxes,” he said. he declares. “What the cap does is it kind of limits the extent to which, you know, we could transfer that cost [to residents].”

After decades, bringing the cap up to date

A report from a state legislative committee that could reshape the damages cap is expected in May.

Plaintiffs have already tried to fight the cap on local government liability in the Tort Claims Act and another for state agencies — but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled. refused to hear several challenges to their constitutionality.

“The number was set for these caps years ago,” said Lindsay Miller, an attorney with the law firm White and Williams, which has tracked challenges to the statutes. “Over 40 years…that number hasn’t changed since then. And I think when people file catastrophic lawsuits against a municipality, they expect a certain dollar amount because of their injuries and such. And the tribunal is limited because of these ceilings.

Miller sees caps serving a purpose — to make government agencies work, not “get bogged down in litigation.” But she thinks it’s time for lawmakers to revisit them.

Street works at 6th and Bainbridge streets
Work continues on 6th and Bainbridge streets, where a main broke a year ago, flooding homes and businesses. (Emma Lee/WHY)

Last year, the State Senate passed a resolution task the Legislative Committee on Budget and Finance with studying the ceilings and making recommendations on their modification to the Senate.

“First, is it necessary?” said Patricia Berger, Executive Director of the Committee. “Second, what if it changes? So what should they consider if they change it?”

The Committee is studying inflation, as well as the impact that changing the caps would have on litigants and government agencies. Berger declined to comment further on the contents of the report, which she plans to release in May.

A cap change would be good news for McLaughlin, a victim of the 2012 main break, even though his case is long over.

“It’s unfair to anyone,” he said.

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