Water damage from your neighbor’s property: Who is responsible?
I get a lot of phone calls every week about nuisance neighbors. I hear from people whose fence got obliterated by a falling tree, whose upstairs neighbor’s kid is doing gymnastics at 5:00 AM, or whose neighbor’s dog poops all over the shared balcony. Answers: a.) Call your insurance company. b.) Wake up at 4:00 AM and dribble a basketball off the ceiling until they get the message; c.) Fling the turds against their window hard enough to stick. However, recently, I got a call from a homeowner with a water damage running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. My “would-be” client had serious water damage to the foundation and structural elements of his house caused by water runoff from two of his neighbors. Specifically, the water comes from an apartment building that is uphill from his backyard and from a sump pump installed by the next door neighbor that emptied mere feet from his house. As I began sharpening my knives for the inevitable donnybrook I took a close look at the law.
LIABILITY FOR WATER DAMAGE IS NOT ALWAYS CLEAR-CUT
In D.C. we follow a modified version of the “common enemy rule.” The D.C. rule provides: “surface water is a common enemy that may be repelled or deflected onto the land of other proprietors, provided that such deflection is the result of the ordinary use of land and is not accomplished by means of channels, ditches or other extraordinary construction Ballard v. Ace Wrecking Co., 289 A.2d 888, 889-90 (D.C. 1972); See also, United States v. Shapiro, Inc., 202 F.2d 459, 460 (D.C. Cir. 1953). So where does that leave us? Assuming the owner of the uphill apartment building merely improved or re-graded the property to direct water away, in good faith, with reasonable care, and not for the purpose injuring the downhill property, liability is improbable. However, the owner who is pumping stormwater directly onto a neighbor’s property is in a different situation altogether. Such a measure is likely “unreasonable” given the availability of a storm sewer which could accommodate the runoff 20 feet in the other direction.
WATER DAMAGE LIABILITY IS VERY FACT SPECIFIC
As you can see there are a number of moving parts at play in whether your neighbor might be responsible for water damage to your house. You should not make a determination on your own about whether you might have a claim. I provide free case evaluations to homeowners on the receiving end of water damage. Simply contact me, or use my online scheduling tool to make an appointment at a time that suits you.