James Jennings' home was flooded by sewage flowing from a toilet.
James Jennings' home was flooded by sewage flowing from a toilet.

It Hits the Fan

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 it that 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


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.

"In Arlington, traditionally, we've been really good at voting down bad proposals," says Norred, 41. "But I thought we needed an umbrella organization to take on stupid ideas wherever they may be."

The appeal of dfwreview.org is that similar local blogs (barkingdogs.org, dallasarena.com, nojonestax.com) are often so strident as to be easily dismissed. Norred's site is written in an analytical tone and offers links to independent authors to support its position. So even though Norred's group admittedly uses dfwreview.org as a pulpit to proselytize on some conservative economic principles--he's against the creation of a regional transportation authority--he does so without trying to paint his detractors as idiots. And he's angered stadium-at-all-costs conservatives in Arlington because DFW Review says "the Cowboys should use their own money and proceeds from 'personal seat licenses' to generate the funding necessary to build the stadium." He says Arlington should pay for naming rights only.

"Yes, I'm a big-time Republican, but the closer you get to home, the less ideological you are and the more you care about things on an issue-by-issue basis," Norred says. "You get more middle of the road. You ask yourself is it smart, does it work, what's the best way? Then you back that plan. That's what we try to do." --Eric Celeste

What's in a Name

First there was Dick Cheney, heading up the search committee in 2000 to find George Bush a vice president and deciding, with a slap to his forehead, that the best person for the job was--of course!--himself. Now, there's Dallas Independent School District board member Hollis Brashear. He gets to name new facilities once DISD builds them. The under-construction Jesse Owens Memorial Complex within Brashear's Oak Cliff district had some facilities that needed some names. So, why not name one after a deserving citizen? Like Brashear.

"It's narcissism, man," says Allen Gwinn, a community activist who runs the Web site dallasisd.com. "I mean, c'mon. I know that Hollis may think there aren't any worthier people to name something after, but I'd think there'd be a few names to throw around."

The Jesse Owens Memorial Complex will cost $40 million and house an eight-lane all-weather track. With the artificial turf between the oval, the complex can host football and basketball games, soccer matches, track meets and band competitions. And above it all will be the Hollis Brashear Press Box.

Brashear named it after himself at a June board meeting. Dr. Lois Parrott, the school board president, says it wasn't hubris that led Brashear to his decision. It was common sense.

Brashear, who has served on the board since 1992, was influential in making the Owens complex a reality. "Mr. Brashear has been a voice of reason," Parrott says. "He has the respect of everyone." That's why he approved his own name, she says.

But his wasn't the only name approved. No, Brashear went on a naming frenzy with the Owens complex. There's the Freddie James West Concourse, the Raymond Hollie East Concourse, the John Kincaide Stadium, the Ellis Davis Field House, even the Jr. ROTC Flagpoles.

Perhaps it doesn't matter why Brashear named a press box after himself. Perhaps the better question is: Why isn't your name memorialized? --Paul Kix


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >