A pair of Sedona homeowners have had their claims with the city denied following an Aug. 2 sewer backup on View Drive that left both homes with several inches of standing raw sewage.
A letter dated Aug. 18 from a claims specialist from Arizona Risk Retention Pool, of which the city of Sedona is a member, was issued to Geoff and Danna Messer as well as Hildegard Szuklitsch and their legal representation.
The letter states, “We have done a thorough investigation of the above referenced claim. We found there to be no negligence on the part of the city that would have caused the sewer to back-up into your home. Your liability claim is, therefore, respectfully denied on behalf of the city of Sedona.”
On the night of the backup, both homes had sewage coming up from showers, sinks and toilets. Szuklitsch’s home suffered even greater damage as it flowed out her front and back doors. Both homes sit on the lowest point of the street.
In the days following the incident, it was estimated that there was at least $100,000 in damage between the two houses.
“I’m still homeless,” Szuklitsch said on Monday, Aug. 21. “The house has been cleaned but it’s unlivable. I’m a wreck — I’m so stressed out over this.”
Last week, Szuklitsch retained attorney Jason Bliss who said he’s investigating whether the city informs residents that they need a back-flow preventer on their home’s system when connecting to city sewer. He said the city paid to have a company come in and remove all damaged household items as well as damaged flooring and walls. But that’s where the responsibility has ended, he said.
“We’re certainly disappointed in the city’s response,” Bliss said. “We’re hopeful they will do the right thing.”
Danna Messer said that while they have not personally seen the claim adjuster’s letter, it was sent to an attorney they are hoping to hire. A GoFundMe account was started by a friend to help cover legal costs.
“We were absolutely shocked and distressed when we heard the claim was denied,” she said. “We’ve been talking to a lot of people since this happened and they are outraged. We’re just hoping this never happens to anyone else.”
In addition to the city, their homeowners insurance has denied their claim. In their meantime, they hope to begin making repairs on their own.
“The insurance company is saying it’s the city’s responsibility because the clog happened on the street and not on our property,” she said. “Because of that we expected the city’s insurance to come through.”
Messer said they were never informed that they needed a back-flow preventer when they bought the home several years ago. She is hoping the city will create some type of program in which homebuyers are told either directly by the city or during the inspection process when buying a home of their need for a back-flow preventer.
“The city’s insurance carrier has investigated the cause of the backups on View Drive and determined that they were caused by a third party not under the control of the city or its employees,” City Attorney Robert Pickels said. “While we continue to sympathize with the residents affected by this most unfortunate event, the city simply does not have a mechanism by which it can cover losses that were not either caused or contributed to by the actions of the city or its employees.”
The morning following the backup, City Manager Justin Clifton met with Geoff Messer to discuss options.
“I’ve seen sewer backups like this before and know how absolutely tragic they can be for the people involved,” Clifton told the Sedona Red Rock News the day after the incident. “What I communicated to Mr. Messer is that we needed to complete claims paperwork so we could get the ball rolling as soon as possible but that typically homeowners insurance is the first line of defense in a case like this.”
He said while the backup originated from a blocked main sewer pipe, the cause of the backup was a pillow case that must have come from another residence.
“It is rare that homes have a floor drain elevation lower than the manholes in the street,” Clifton said at the time. “In those cases, homes should be outfitted with a back-flow preventer that prevents sewage from entering the home.”