Thursday, May 21, 2009

Flood Victims File Lawsuit Against City

By Conor Greene

A dozen families whose property was damaged during the flooding of August 2007 have filed a lawsuit against the city claiming its storm water system was unable to handle torrential rainfall that hit the area.

“The initial lawsuit involves twelve families, but if we get the class action we can open it up to all 810 families that filed against the city,” said Forest Hills resident Bruce Saffran, whose apartment was filled with water and raw sewage. “I just want to be made whole. I’m not suing for all kinds of crazy damages, just to replace what I lost.”

In addition to being compensated for the damages, the lawsuit aims to force the city to upgrade the borough’s infrastructure to prevent future flooding. According to attorney Oscar Michelen, who is representing the victims, Queens only has a single line to carry both storm water and sewage, unlike other boroughs where there are two separate lines.

“What happens is sewage comes back up through the toilet bowl into the bathroom. All of a sudden the pipe gets flooded with water, which has to go somewhere, so it pushes into the pipe that is normally reserved for sewage,” said Michelen. “That’s why these folks are getting three feet of sewage in their apartments. Every time it rains heavily, folks hear water in their toilet gurgle. When you get heavy rain, you’re really in trouble.”

The August 2007 rainfall sent four feet of water sweeping through Saffran’s ground-floor apartment on Yellowstone Boulevard, destroying virtually all of the family’s possessions. He was forced to literally flee the apartment with his wife and young son, and to make matters worse, the bathroom toilet overflowed at the same time, sending raw sewage into the apartment.

”I don’t want to have to stay up at night worried every time it rains. It’s not a way to live [and] I think it’s almost cruel for the city to expect us to,” said Saffran. “None of us are looking to hit the litigation lotto. Everyone is legitimate with legitimate loses we think the city owes us for.”

The lawsuits come a month after City Comptroller William Thompson announced that the city is not responsible for compensating flood victims. The announcement came after an investigation by the city Department of Environmental Protection “found no basis for holding the city liable.”

However, Michelen took issue with the fact that the city conducted its own investigation. “They should have invested in an independent review. At least then it’s a third party and not their own internal investigation. I would be surprised when we review the report if it was really as thorough as it should be,” he said. “Everyone knows the situation in Queens, so this was very foreseeable. A number of things contributed to it that the city was aware of, and this is the price the people in these neighborhoods have to pay.”

The city has been served with the lawsuit, which Michelen says names the dozen families and seek “protection for the entire class of individuals who were damaged by the August 2007 flood.” Once the city responds to the suit, Michelen will file a motion asking the court to certify it as a class action. If that happens, all 810 residents who filed claims against the city will be notified that they might be eligible to join the action.

“We’re very confident that because of the number of claimants, we will get class action,” said Michelen. “This is the age-old story in Queens, [where] flooding is nothing unusual. The city just chooses to ignore it until they get sued or something else happens.”

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