It Hits the Fan

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It Hits the Fan
The city washes its hands of James Jennings’ crap-filled house

Almost 12 years have passed since the toilet at the back of his house turned into a giant turd cannon, blasting raw sewage all over his home, and James T. Jennings still can't talk about it without crying.

"They've ruined my life. They've taken away everything. No savings. No vacations. They've even taken away my future," he said last week.

Perhaps some responsibility for the lost savings goes to Jennings, who elected to spend more than $20,000 on lawsuits against the city of Dallas since the fecal water cannon incident in 1993. The city successfully hid behind the doctrine of "sovereign immunity," a law shielding municipalities from suit in all but a few extreme cases.

Jennings' lawyer Elliot Shavin tried a number of techniques for getting around the shield law and even won a major victory at the appeals-court level a couple of years ago. But last January the Texas Supreme Court ruled in favor of the city, effectively putting an end to Jennings' quest for damages.

Last week over coffee at a fast-food place along Interstate 20, Jennings wondered aloud how many people in Dallas realize that the city can fill your house 3 feet deep in sewage and then tell you to kiss its ass. "Some people, they're going to take care of, but a nobody, they ain't going to give him shit, nothing but a hard time."

An attorney for the city declined to discuss facts of the case other than providing a copy of the Supreme Court decision upholding the city's position. The sovereign immunity law, broadened over the years in response to lobbying by cities, effectively protects municipalities from suit on a laundry list of specific grounds, even in cases where the cities are at fault. Cities, conveniently enough, are protected from suit over malfunctioning sewer systems.

If Jennings sounds bitter about that, it's because he is.

Two days after Christmas 1993, Jennings was away from his house off Simpson Stuart Road in far Southern Dallas, almost on the border with Hutchins. His wife, Charlotte, called in a panic.

"She heard a blast coming from the bathroom, like a cannon or a shotgun or something, a gun firing," he said. "She stuck her head in the bathroom, and she had to jerk back out of there, because it was coming up out of there."

In court cases, of course, lawyers can argue about anything, so there has been some argument about what it was. The city argued that what came blasting out of the Jennningses' toilet and filled their home to waist level in some rooms was "waste water."

"What they call 'dirty water,' I call shit," Jennings said.

But a few of the larger facts of the case were never in dispute. Both sides agree that a city sewer crew was at work a few houses away from Jennings' house just before it started rocketing out of the toilet. In lengthy depositions, city workers explained that they had been called to clean a clot of "grease" from the sewer line just upstream from Jennings.

A civil engineer who analyzed the incident for the defense testified that the city crew had used the wrong equipment to clear the blockage, even though proper equipment was available. Instead of breaking up the clog, the expert said, the city crew merely pushed it to a position just down from Jennings.

The Jennings house is on hilly land near the intersection of I-45 and I-20. Jennings is convinced the city forced water into the sewer to clear it, something the city denied. But the outside expert testified that the slope of the sewer line itself may have been enough to create the powerful flood of itthat filled Jennings' house.

When he called the city, "They told me they'd come out and get the water out of the house, but they said they don't move furniture. Other than that, they told me to call my insurance company."

Jennings says the small settlement he received from his insurance company was nowhere near enough to compensate him for his ruined house, which he believes to be unsellable. He and his wife continue to live in it, he says, because they have no choice.

"And we have to put up with people saying we live in a shitty house," he said.

His resources exhausted, his legal recourse seemingly at an end, Jennings wonders how many other people out there in the city may have suffered similar fates. And he wonders whether taxpayers, who may otherwise believe the city exists to serve them, understand what the city's victory in his case means.

"They say they have the right to flood everybody's house with shit, and not a damn thing can be done about it."

You don't see that on the city's logo. --Jim Schutze

Doesn'tsuck.com

Most blogs are overrated screeds best housed at the URL usuckandrstupid.com. A few add something to public discourse and give a perspective that the daily (and, sigh, sometimes weekly) news media miss.

Arlington engineer Warren Norred runs just such a site: www.dfwreview.org. Norred, a longtime Republican and owner of Norred Sales and Engineering, started the organization and Web site of the same name a year ago to act as a resource to community groups in North Texas intent on fighting what they (and DFW Review) consider bad public policy.

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