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Jury finds Milwaukee at fault in basement floods

By Beth Kevit

Two hundred Milwaukee residents received the verdict they wanted Friday in a lawsuit against the city over basement flooding, but they now must wait to learn whether the jury’s ruling is valid.

The residents, who live in Milwaukee’s Lincoln Creek and Lincoln Park neighborhoods, sued the city in 2009 over flood damage to their homes. The city estimated the flooding on June 7 and 8, 2008, caused about $23 million in damage.

The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, Veolia Water Milwaukee LLC and Veolia’s Delaware-based parent firm also were named as defendants but settled with the plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs alleged Milwaukee, the MMSD and Veolia all were negligent in maintaining and operating the sewer system, which allowed raw sewage to flood the basements of 129 homes. The city denied those allegations.

The jury Friday decided the negligence of all parties contributed to the flooding, and the group of plaintiffs is entitled to $1.491 million in compensation for home repairs, loss of belongings and decreased property values.

Although MMSD and Veolia settled, the jury ascribed 63.23 percent of the blame to them. The city, the jury decided, was 36.77 percent at fault.

Chris Trebatoski, an attorney with Milwaukee-based Weiss Berzowski Brady LLP who represents the plaintiffs, said if the verdict is upheld, that means the city will be liable for 36.77 percent of the $1,491,000, or about $548,241.

But Trebatoski called the verdict’s validity into question because of three jurors’ indicated dissent.

Two alternate jurors deliberated with the 12 regulars, an action that Assistant City Attorney Jan Smokowicz said both parties agreed to. That meant 14 people deliberated, and for a ruling to be valid in that situation, the same 12 jurors must agree on each question.

However, two jurors indicated they did not agree the city’s negligence caused damage, and a third juror did not agree MMSD’s and Veolia’s negligence caused any damage.

“My initial reaction is there isn’t a verdict,” Trebatoski said, “because you have to have the same 12 jurors.”

He declined to comment further but said he plans to file a motion to get an answer to the validity question.

Smokowicz said he does not know whether the city will file any motions.

“There may be some issues,” he said, “but we have to consult.”

Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Christopher Foley told the attorneys his initial reaction is that the verdict is valid but indicated he would consider motions.

“If we haven’t got a valid verdict then we haven’t got a valid verdict,” he said. “For now, we’re done.”

Tom Reep, the lead plaintiff, said he does not have an opinion on the verdict’s validity but was pleased with the jury’s decision.

“I’m thankful that they did hold the city liable,” he said, “because we do believe they played a key role in the problems we suffered in our neighborhood.”

As much as 4 feet of sewage flowed into some of the basements.

Staff writer Eric Heisig also contributed to this report.


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