When Sewage Turns to Suing

I am lucky.  I enjoy my work and I don’t think there are a lot of people out there who can say that.  Oh there are days when I could happily tear my hair out (or the eyes of my opponent!) but generally, I enjoy it.  I think it is because of the variety of work that I get to see and deal with.  As a professional negligence lawyer, I obviously need to understand basic civil law tenets like duty of care and causation but I also have to understand other areas of law to understand and evaluate whether a solicitor has been negligent. It might be a divorce negligence case one day and a commercial property negligence case the next. And that’s just the solicitors’ negligence claims. We also require an understanding of building in order to sue a negligent builder, architect or surveyor: Or an understanding of finance and pensions to sue an IFA.  You get the idea.

It isn’t always limited to that though.  Take one case that I settled recently all about sewage rights and drainage.  I had to become familiar with various regulations and requirements about the installation of a septic tank, drainage on a hill, porosity of soil etc.  In fact, I now know more about sewage treatment than any girl has a right to know!  It was however, an interesting case.

I had an advantage in this case.  I had a lovely client, but as a result of an act of huge generosity on his part, he was now being sued.  He lived in a terrace of three houses which were linked up to a septic tank on someone else’s land.  The sewage system failed and so he offered to install a new septic tank system on his land to serve all three properties.  At the same time, he was selling his house and as part of the contract, he agreed that he would ensure the new system was of reasonably satisfactory condition.

The system was installed, the house was sold and all was quiet for over 18 months.  During that 18 months though, the Claimant (who had purchased my client’s house), alleged that the sewage system was fundamentally flawed, that it had broken down and was not fit for purpose.  However, rather than sitting down with the two neighbours to try and sort something out, he simply stopped the neighbours’ access to the system.  One of the neighbours was able to install his own system, but the other neighbour did not have the land to do that so brought proceedings against the Claimant.  The neighbour won and the Claimant was faced with a massive legal bill – about £180k.  So the Claimant decided to sue my client on the grounds that the system was not reasonably satisfactory and was in breach of contract.  They claimed not only the cost of installing a new system but also the legal costs of the previous proceedings.  All in all, my client was facing a bill of in excess of £225k.

This is where the fun started.  We had to investigate all the requirements for installing a septic system with a soakaway system, the length of the soakaways, depth, area etc and all this dating back 6-7 years ago.  We also had to investigate the types of septic tank systems and pumps, what could cause their failure, water tables, percolation tests and groundwater levels.  At times it was mind-boggling but always interesting and not the sort of thing that one would usually come across.  In fact, it stood me in good stead because not long after this case, I then got instructed on two more cases involving septic tanks and drainage systems!  All of a sudden, I had become an expert in what could have been a crappy area of law (pardoning the pun!)

So how did the case end?  Unfortunately, we found out that some surface water was getting into the sewage system when it shouldn’t have been.   The neighbour who had issued the first set of proceedings had linked her guttering to the sewage system and although it was outside of my client’s area of works, it meant our defence wasn’t as watertight as we would like.  So, we made an offer.  We offered the princely sum of £5,000 – an over-the-top estimation of what it would have cost to re-route the neighbour’s guttering had the Claimant been sensible about it right from the start reached a sensible solution.  The other side accepted the offer and as a result, my client is having to pay some of his legal costs.  It will be a pyrrhic victory though for the Claimants: they still have to pick up the tab for the legal costs of the previous case and although my client will have to pay some of the costs of this case, there will be a huge discount on the basis that the Claimant vastly over-inflated the value of their claim.

But at least I know something about sewage systems now!

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