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One Friday in October last year, Evanston homeowners Ethan and Sara Chatfield noticed a damp spot on a dry day in their front lawn. They called the City to ask about the source.
Thus began an odyssey more than a year in duration. Homeowners and taxpayers ran afoul of a City water department that a Cook County judge called “uncommunicative,” and a City legal department that prides itself in refusing to settle even the most obvious of claims.
What should have been a simple shared expense – the homeowner pays for the repairs of their water pipe, the City pays for repairs of its pipes – turned into a nightmare.
At the end of the ordeal, the Chatfields won a judgment against the City of Evanston for $1,750 plus another $250 or so in court costs. The judgment came after a nearly four-hour trial – delayed twice by City motions – in which the City called three City-employee witnesses and had two lawyers at its table.
A Leak, Then a Sinkhole
The saga began when City water department employees visited the Chatfields’ home the day of the reported leak but were unable to verify the source, Mr. Chatfield told the RoundTable. Instead, they told the Chatfields to wait until Monday, when a supervisor would return to work. At that point, the Chatfields were told, the City would know whether the leak was the City’s or the homeowner’s responsibility.
One employee, the Chatfields said, did have a word of advice for them: “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” At trial, the employee admitted the comment and said he meant residents need to be persistent to get service from the City.
When the water department employees left after having tinkered with the shut-off valve, the damp spot became a pool in the Chatfields’ yard that began to expand. “We think they wrenched or jarred open the crack and the hole [in the pipe], and the pool began to swirl,” wrote Mr. Chatfield in an email.
Before the end of the day Friday, the barriers the City had placed around the leak had fallen into the growing pool, engulfed by an expanding sinkhole. Water rose over the curb and began to flow down the street. Taking the employee’s advice to be a “squeaky wheel,” the Chatfields continued to call the City asking for something to be done and expressing concern for the safety of pedestrians. The City finally returned late Saturday afternoon with more caution tape and barriers.
The trial judge said she believed the repeated calls over the weekend indicated the Chatfields were not initially told the leak was their responsibility. “Had [the City] clearly communicated, I doubt the homeowners would have continually called throughout the weekend,” said Judge Anjana Hansen from the bench.
By Monday the City’s barriers around the growing sinkhole had fallen into the hole. The same City water supervisor arrived and informed the Chatfields the leak was, in fact, their responsibility. They must fix it; the City would do nothing.
“He was a very unpleasant guy,” said Sara Chatfield. He showed up at the front door and “was really nasty.” He told the Chatfields, “You need to get this taken care of,” threatening to turn off their water if they did not do something immediately.
Disappointed but realistic, the Chatfields contacted three plumbers and obtained estimates on Tuesday. The work began shortly thereafter. The plumber turned off the water at the Buffalo Box, the junction between a homeowner’s water pipe and the City water supply near the street, and dug out the area around the pipe, allowing the accumulated pool of water to drain back into the ground.
The excavation revealed a hole in the pipe on the homeowner’s side. “There was a shovel mark on our side of the pipe,” said Mr. Chatfield. “But there was another active leak coming from the City side, on the fresh water line.” The plumber replaced the valve and repaired the water line on both aides.
The Chatfields took pictures, one of which showed water leaking out of the City side of the pipe. In court, Judge Hansen held up the photo, saying, “You can clearly see water still spraying out of the City side.” Everyone agreed, including the three City employees who testified at trial: There was a leak on the City side.
The City Refuses to Budge
While the picture was enough to convince a Cook County judge, it was not enough to budge the City legal department from its stated mission to settle almost nothing and litigate everything. The repairs, including those on the City side, the Chatfield side, and possibly unrelated repairs to a sewer pipe, totaled $4,400. After paying for the repair in full, the Chatfields asked the City to share in the cost, since they had paid for the repair of City property.
The City’s water department referred the Chatfields to another department, where they were asked to detail the entire series of events once more. After email upon email, question after question, the City delivered their answer: an emphatic no. The City refused to pay for any of the repair.
Mr. Chatfield, who works as an environmental engineer at the EPA, said he is accustomed to talking with lawyers and settling matters. He took his experience to the City and attempted to contact the City’s corporation counsel, Grant Farrar, directly. “It seemed a straightforward case,” Mr. Chatfield told the RoundTable. There were leaks on both sides, and the Chatfields repaired City property. “We were only looking for half the cost,” he said.
The City responded with what the Chatfields both called “a lowball offer.” They tried to counteroffer, but were told the City would not make another offer. Mr. Farrar refused to take any more calls from the Chatfields.
Taking the City to Court
With settlement obviously going nowhere, and with lawyers they spoke with refusing to take a case worth so little, the Chatfields filed a pro se case – without a lawyer – in the Skokie Courthouse on Feb. 5 of this year. The case was set for trial April 18.
The City demanded a jury trial. Then, one business day before trial, the City filed a motion to dismiss under a theory of “tort immunity” – a concept that protects government workers who make decisions in their official capacity.
The Chatfields did not receive the City’s notice, sent by mail, so they showed up in Judge Thaddeus Machnik’s Skokie courtroom on April 15. They were blindsided by the late-filed motion to dismiss.
The sum was $2,650. “The judge seemed to feel the whole thing was ridiculous,” said Sara Chatfield, but he allowed the motion and set the case for July.
“I asked the judge, ‘Do you have any advice for us?’” said Mr. Chatfield. “He said, ‘Yes. Move to Skokie.’”
In July, Judge Hansen denied the City’s motion to dismiss and set the case for trial on Aug. 29. Tort immunity does not apply when the plaintiffs are seeking reimbursement for repairs they made to City property, she ruled. The City abandoned its jury trial demand, said Sara Chatfield, adding, “It was just another scare tactic.”
On Aug. 12, the City filed an emergency motion to amend the trial date because two of their witnesses were unavailable. On Aug. 22, Judge Hansen, over the Chatfields’ objection, granted a continuance pushing the trial to Oct. 17, more than a year after the leak had been repaired. On that date, the trial finally occurred.
The City brought three City water department employees and a City attorney, all of whom sat in the courtroom from 1:30 p.m. until the conclusion of the trial around 5:45 p.m. One additional attorney sat for most of the trial as well. In total, approximately 19 hours of employee time was spent on Oct. 17 alone, trying to prove the City did not owe the Chatfields $2,650.
But Judge Hansen, in a ruling issued Nov. 7, found for Plaintiffs Ethan and Sara Chatfield. “Plaintiffs are asking to be reimbursed for repairing the City side of the pipe, not the homeowners’,’” said Judge Hansen. The photo clearly showed cracks on both sides, she said. This evidence was “not refuted in any way” and, in fact, “all three City workers agree” there was a leak on the City side. A portion of the claim, $900 for sewer pipe repair, was not included because it was not clear the City’s leak was the sole caused of the sewer pipe damage, the Judge said.
Judge Hansen awarded the cost of the repair to the City pipe, $1,750, plus the cost of filing and serving the lawsuit, about $250 more. To date, the Chatfields have not received payment from the City.