Storie awarded relief for flooding damage

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   An Elizabethton roofing company owner was awarded more than $11,000 in property damages from the City of Elizabethton on Friday after a Circuit Court judge ruled the city should have been aware of a drainage culvert on its property that was blocked with debris.
   Judge Thomas Seeley ruled in favor of Floyd Storie, owner of Floyd Storie Roofing Contractors, 518 Hattie Ave., who filed suit against the city government and two businesses following a flooding incident on July 3, 2001.
   The city purchased the former Elizabethton Herb & Metal located on the west side of Storie's business in late 1999. Storie contended the city bought the land and should have known there was a drainage culvert on the southerly portion of the property designed to capture rainwater and carry it to the storm water drainage system.
   Storie's attorney, Lanny Norris, argued that the city was aware of the culvert and should have been aware it was blocked. However, city administrators in depositions submitted in the case stated they had no knowledge the culvert existed. Attorney John Rambo, representing the city, argued the enormous rainfall created massive flooding around the city not peculiar to Storie's property. He referred to the Government Tort Liability law exempting municipal governments from negligence under certain circumstances beyond control.
   Storie's suit also named Tysinger Hampton & Partners Inc. of Johnson City, which performed the environmental assessment of the property, and Appalachian Landscaping Inc. of Elizabethton, which was contracted by the city to remove brush and do landscaping work.
   According to court records, the culvert was covered by a steel plate and blocked with debris when torrential rainfall hit the city on July 3. Storie testified in court on Friday that the culvert did not drain the water off the city's property and sent copious amounts of water through a chain-link fence dividing the properties and into his building. He testified that water approximately 2 feet deep coursed through his building.
   Storie testified that employees alerted him that water was rising from the old Herb & Metal property into his building. "It was coming through the fence," he told the court. "We had to open the front door to let it out."
   Storie told the court an existing culvert beneath the loading dock of his business was unable to handle the amount of water. He also stated he located the culvert himself and lifted the steel plating to drain the water that remained on the city's property.
   He also testified to hearing but not seeing what he described as brush removal and chipping occurring on the city's property during autumn 2000. According to court records, the culvert was blocked with a variety of debris including wood chippings.
   "I didn't know the location of the culvert," Storie stated. "I just knew it was there from previous experience."
   Under cross-examination, Storie testified he had no idea how the steel plate came to cover the culvert. He also stated he did not see the actual brush removal activities purportedly undertaken on the property. Rambo referred to records put into evidence that indicated more than 2 inches of rainfall fell in the city within 90 minutes on July 3.
   Following Storie's testimony, Rambo moved for an involuntary dismissal citing a lack of evidence that the city knew of the culvert and the plaintiff's failure to carry proof of negligence. "I don't believe he has a cause of action," Rambo told the court.
   Seeley denied the motion based on the listed facts of the case pertaining to the city's ownership of the property, the blockage of the culvert and the flooding of Storie's business.
   City administrators including City Manager Charles Stahl, Risk Manager Angela Robinson and Director of Planning David Ornduff testified that they were unaware the culvert existed on the property. Each also testified that they had not scoured the entire property searching for the culvert.
   The city's surveyor, James L. Bowers, testified that he found no indication of a catch basin after surveying the property and searching the property's deed ownership back to 1928. During cross-examination of Bowers, Norris produced a map dated 1955 that he claimed indicated that the city planned to extend a sewer line onto the property to connect to the culvert. Bowers testified the city did not have maps that identified catch basins on property tracts.
   Ornduff testified they had an environmental assessment and report conducted on the property as a condition to purchase the land. "We were trying to determine the property's boundaries," Ornduff said. He told Norris that he had not walked the entire property since the city had purchased it until the day of the flooding.
   Stahl testified he had not seen a rainfall event occur as it had on July 3 during his 10 years with the city. He testified that the building had functioned mainly as a storage facility and no city employees had been permanently assigned to the building.
   "It has not been fully utilized yet," Stahl said of the building. He also said he was aware some brush clearing and chipping had taken place at the site after the city purchased the property.
   Norris argued that the city floods frequently during rainfall and the city's storm sewers often can not handle the amount of water. He also said those incidents had never caused the level of flooding experienced at Storie's residence on any other date except July 3.
   After hearing both arguments, Seeley stated that it was "more likely than not" that the catch basin became blocked by tree and brush removal done on behalf of the city.
   While Seeley acknowledged the city's protection under the Government Tort Liability, he noted the existence of the culvert was a prominent feature to the property.
   "Any property owner should be aware of salient features of the property," Seeley said. "I think a catch basin is a salient feature to a piece of property."
   He ruled Storie's property was flooded "to a certain extent greater" than expected had the culvert not been blocked. Seeley awarded Storie damages of $11,012.50 as requested in the lawsuit and taxed the legal costs of the case to the city.
   The rainwater that normally would have been carried away from Storie's property through the culvert instead began to accumulate and was channeled down onto his property, the lawsuit contends.