Couple seeks $15,000 from Federal Way and Lakehaven after tree breaks sewer line

Last January, Ralph and Lillian Hearlson experienced quite a mess when a tree root clogged a sewer line servicing their Federal Way home.

The couple is asking the city and Lakehaven Utility District to reimburse the nearly $15,000 they spent to fix the problem.

"We just want the bill paid, that's all we're asking," Lillian Hearlson said.

The Hearlsons had no idea the root was interfering with their side sewer line, which extends from their house beyond their property to the middle of 35th Avenue Southwest, where it hooks into the main sewer line. The problem became apparent when sewer water backed up into their home.

"It just suddenly happened," Lillian Hearlson said. "There was no warning or anything."

The couple paid to have the line fixed, meanwhile spending a month without a toilet. They hired a surveyor, who determined the tree that caused the problem was in the public right-of-way. They also researched Federal Way's Tree Root Damage Liability code (chapter 4.35.120). The Hearlsons interpreted the code to mean that whoever owns the tree root causing the damage is liable for the damage.

The retired couple feel the city and Lakehaven are responsible for the sewer line blockage.

"Someone should stand up and take responsibility for this and it shouldn't be the homeowner," Ralph Hearlson said.

Resolving the matter

In April, the Hearlsons met with officials from Lakehaven and the City of Federal Way to discuss the matter. Neither meeting was successful.

"They are certainly wonderful people and it's an unfortunate thing for them," said Steve Pritchett, Lakehaven Utility District general counsel.

The couple then filed a claim for damages with the city and Lakehaven. Both turned down the claim.

A July 27 letter from Lakehaven's insurance provider, Cities Insurance Association of Washington, reads: "The Lakehaven Utility District's duty to maintain facilities within the right-of-way extends only to the public main sewer line and not to side sewer lines attaching to it. Our investigation of the circumstances which caused your side sewer line to plug does not reflect this backup incident was a result of negligence on the part of the Lakehaven Utility District."

Pritchett confirmed Lakehaven's policy that the side sewer, from the point it leaves the home to the point it connects to the main line, is the responsibility of the property owner. This could pose problems for several Federal Way residents. Having a side sewer line that extends beyond one's property, into a right-of-way or the street, is common in platted areas of Federal Way, said John Bowman, Lakehaven engineering and water operations manager.

An Aug. 2 letter from the City of Federal Way's insurance provider, Washington Cities Insurance Authority, also denied the Hearlsons' damage claim. It reads: "Tree root intrusion is a typical occurrence for underground sewer systems, especially with older concrete lines. When lines are properly maintained, blockages rarely occur. The owner of the sewer line has the responsibility to perform needed maintenance on the sewer line. The City of Federal Way does not own the sewer line that crosses the city ROW (right-of-way) and has no maintenance obligations for the sewer line."

Legal options

The Hearlsons are now considering a lawsuit, but hope the matter can be resolved outside court.

"We don't want to go to court," Lillian Hearlson said. "We don't think we should have to go to court."

If the situation were reversed and a tree on the Hearlsons' property destroyed a sewer line on city or Lakehaven property, the couple would be expected to pay for the damages, Ralph Hearlson said.

"If our tree went out and damaged the line, I'd say we'd be held responsible," he said.

Check it out

The city's Tree Root Damage Liability code states: "Any person who owns any tree or vegetation within private property, the roots of which cause injury to the public right-of-way or other public place, including, without limitation, damage to utilities located in the public right-of-way, sidewalks or paved areas, shall be liable for any damage to public rights-of-way, or other public places, or utilities located therin by said trees or vegetation."

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