Public utilities such as water, power and sewer service are necessary for economic development and are commonly operated by municipal authorities. In some instances, a privately constructed and owned piece of utility infrastructure may be used by a municipality, although the owner of the property/equipment should be compensated for allowing the government to use the infrastructure. The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently permitted a full jury verdict of over $1 million to be awarded to the owner of a sewer system that the defendant town had been pumping sewage into without the plaintiff’s consent.
The plaintiff in the recently decided case is a company that constructed and operates a housing development in the town of Johnston, Rhode Island. The development, which was constructed in the 1970s included a sewage pipeline that would pump sewage from the residences up a hill and into the municipal sewer line. The plaintiff’s sewer line initially worked properly without issue, but as the development of the surrounding area progressed, the sewage pump repeatedly had problems. After investigating, the plaintiffs realized that the town of Johnston had been using their private sewer line and pump to move sewage from other developments. The plaintiff sued the town in state court, alleging that the town’s use of the plaintiff’s sewer lines was causing the maintenance issues, and resulted in over $1 million in damages.
After a 5-day jury trial, the plaintiff was awarded a judgment of over $1 million for the losses that they suffered as a result of the defendant’s unauthorized use of their sewage line. In a post-judgment motion, the trial court reduced the award to $100,000 based on a statutory limit to damages obtained against a government agency performing a public function. The plaintiff appealed the reduction to the Rhode Island Supreme Court, arguing that the operation of a municipal sewage line is generally a private, not a public function and that the $100,00 damage cap should not apply. The high court agreed with the plaintiff, finding that the design of a sewer system is a public function, but the operation of such a system is private. As a result of this ruling, the plaintiff will be entitled to the full jury award plus interest.
Standing up to a Government Trespass
Municipalities and utility companies in Rhode Island often get away with using property and infrastructure without obtaining proper permission. Many property owners are not aware that they have the right to challenge these uses of their property and should be entitled to compensation for the government’s use of the property. If you think that your rights are being infringed, you can talk to a Rhode Island real estate attorney to discuss your options. The qualified land-use attorneys at Bilodeau Capalbo have helped hundreds of clients with a variety of real estate issues in Rhode Island, including easements and utility issues. Contact our offices today and schedule a free consultation by calling 401-300-4055.