Council to consider how to compensate homeowner; city paid out $341K in 2015 incident
By Damian Mann for Ashland.news
After a vacation last October, Tish Way returned home to an unimaginable disaster that turned her life upside down.
The sewer line in the street had backed up inside her house located across the street from the Ashland Coop after someone in the neighborhood flushed sanitary wipes down a toilet. The blockage backed sewage up and turned Way’s home into a toxic mess.
“All of my clothing, shoes, blankets, quilts my grandmother and great-grandmother made were unusable,” said Way, a senior citizen and 23-year Ashland resident. “Not only unusable, but they were labeled toxic.”
She discovered the mess that forced her to move out of her First Street house on Oct. 30, 2022, and she is trying to get a settlement from the city to pay for damages, estimated at about $250,000.
Another nearby property owner had also been affected but hasn’t sought compensation from the city.
The City Council will have an executive session on March 7 to try to find a solution for Way’s dilemma.
“Essentially what I have is a total loss of the interior of my home,” said Way, who has endured emotional devastation from the destruction of her house and most of her belongings.
She pleaded with the City Council at its meeting Feb. 21 for assistance and to agree to pay 100% of the cost of repairs.
“It is terrifying that homeowner’s insurance doesn’t pay for this,” she said.
Riley MacGraw, Way’s attorney, said the city’s insurance carrier, CIS, will cover up to $132,200, the maximum amount allowed under the Oregon Tort Claims Act. MacGraw asked the city to make up the difference in order to allow his client to repair her house.
On Feb. 9, MacGraw submitted a letter to the city describing the claim.
MacGraw said that, in light of Way’s predicament, he has altered his own insurance policy to cover damages from a sewage spill.
City Manager Joe Lessard said at the Feb. 21 council meeting, “The truth is this occurrence isn’t intentional or willful.”
He said a couple of neighbors had issues, but he wasn’t sure of the extent of damages, if any, in the other house.
The city’s insurance carrier, CIS Oregon, has instructed Way to contact a company licensed to cleanup raw sewage, Lessard said.
He said the council will hold an executive session and city staff will provide a recommendation on potential settlements.
“We are processing it, and we are serious,” he said.
Once the sewage spill was detected, city staff cleared the blockage and contacted the homeowners, Lessard said.
“It turns out the blockage was the result of wipes being flushed that shouldn’t be flushed,” he said.
At the store, many baby wipes or sanitary wipes claim that they are flushable, Lessard said, noting his wife also buys the wipes.
“The truth is they should not be flushed, and they do not disintegrate,” he said.
On Nov. 3, 2022, Ian McWilliams from CIS Oregon sent Way an email:
“Good news! I was able to speak with the right person at the city and accept liability. I have assigned an appraiser to call you ASAP and schedule a time to view the property and write an estimate.”
In the same email, McWilliam that SERVPRO had not yet been scheduled to clean up her house.
“I would urge you to start the process immediately if you haven’t already as you have a duty to mitigate any more damage to your property,” McWilliam stated. “Unfortunately, we are not able to pay for this service for you up front, but rather in a lump sum payment at the end of the claim when a signed property damage released is received. I apologize for the inconvenience and hope we can wrap this claim up soon for you.”
In 2015, the city of Ashland agreed to settle for $341,000 a claim for damages caused when a loose brick backed up sewage into a Morton Street house, causing major damage to walls, floors and furniture.
The Ashland City Council at the time voted unanimously to award the maximum tort claim allowed by the city charter. The city also had paid the family $25,000 in emergency funding.
For four months since the sewage spill, Way was first forced to move into a hotel and is now living in an apartment.
She said her compensation from CIS is being eroded because a certain amount is deducted from her stays in the hotel or rental unit. She’s looking at staying in a rental unit for at least another six months to get the work completed on her house.
Way has also lost rental income from a unit in the back of her house as well as losing $42,000 in personal belongings.
The interior of her home has been completely gutted of all flooring, cabinets, sinks, plumbing, sheetrock and interior doors, as well as appliances and other items damaged by thousands of gallons of raw sewage.
Way said she has appealed for help financially from the city to deal with her survival needs but hasn’t received anything. A friend has started a GoFundMe page to raise money to help Way cover her bills: https://gofund.me/bc814d9f. As of Monday, it had raised $1,601 toward a $10,000 goal.
“Essentially what I have is a total loss of the interior of my home and 90% of my personal belongings,” she said. “I have also experienced a significant blow to my health, emotionally, physically as well as mentally from this horrendous experience,” Way said.
Reach freelance writer Damian Mann at email@example.com.